Pursuit of happiness is ingrained in our culture. It assumes a civil society.
Some time ago I was in need of almond abstract. I went to the grocery store, headed to the baking supplies section of the store and began to search for the small box. I had done this before, except it was for a bottle of vanilla abstract and another time it was to purchase mint abstract. You would have probably guessed correctly that the time was around Christmas. I searched everywhere for the almond abstract and was quite bewildered. Not only was there no almond abstract, there simply was no abstract of any kind. Was it in a different part of the store? I went over the customer service desk and asked the clerk where I could find almond abstract. He smiled and turned to the shelf behind him. Because of the routine theft of abstract by the neighborhood alcoholics, something as common or ordinary as almond abstract was now a behind-the-counter item, joining cigarettes and cigars.
Fast forward to summer 2021 and I encountered the news about what is besetting the city of San Francisco. Seventeen Walgreens were closing because of the rise of lawlessness. CVS stores, while remaining open, were on the edge of closure. Target reduced hours. The rampant shoplifting was almost in the news daily. What stores remained were being transformed into labor-intensive operations where more and more items were secured behind locked cabinets. Need some eye shadow? You need to go see the clerk.
How this came about was from the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014. It had a rather noble objective of getting non-violent offenders out of California’s jails and prisons and into treatment programs. As many of us know, many of these folks were not hardened criminals. They were often part of the ambiance of drug addiction, mental illness, alcoholism and homelessness. The goal was to take the money saved from incarceration and apply it toward treatment.
Alas, human nature proved different. Since 2014 California has been beset by homeless encampments and rampant crime. Add to this the clearing of the jails due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you have the perfect storm of lawless behavior that has paralyzed commerce. The politicians and prosecutors have deflected the issue by pointing to the evolution of “organized criminal activity”. I couldn’t help but chuckle. Like the chickens in Chicken Run, homeless and hopelessly addicted people are suddenly “organized.” Criminals are encouraged to enter stores, take up to $900 of merchandise and flee. That keeps the crime as a misdemeanor and most likely never prosecuted. Nobody stops them. The merchandise is not for personal consumption, but feeds into the black market. The criminals are given money or drugs, whatever it takes to get them to do it again. And again.
Voters made a wrong call on Proposition 47 because they misjudged human nature. My experience with almond abstract is a parable of what has amplified into a crisis in such cities as San Francisco. My freedom to access something as ordinary as almond abstract has been curtailed because of the low-level criminal activity in downtown Juneau. The lack of social order in San Francisco has denigrated so severely that Walgreens is abandoning entire neighborhoods. While some would charge that Walgreens is being greedy and neglecting their social responsibility, the company has a more immediate concern to address – survival. For all the merchandise they lose, their insurance rates increase and losses mount for each store’s operation. Their employees are endangered. The customers are endangered. With fewer customers and with employees harder to hire, it is only a matter of time before it is simply not worth the effort.
In the end, the people who are really hurt are the citizens that live in these neighborhoods. My guess is that most of these neighborhoods are marginal at best. Many of its people may ride public transportation and will have to travel further to access the goods they had previously purchased at Walgreens. Or they will have to be content to take the higher priced alternative if a drug store remains. In essence, their pursuit of happiness was defined in their freedom to buy what they wanted, where they wanted. That is now taken away from them. It is not the fault of Walgreens. It is because of Proposition 47. The citizens of California will need to re-appraise their understanding of human nature.
The decline of commerce in San Francisco demonstrates the thin veneer of civility that has enabled something as common as a grocery store to operate. Imagine a society where looting is common place. Would you expect to see open shelves of produce and packaged foods? Where once you used to grab a box of aspirin you now would have to go to a counter and request it? This is the level of disorder that San Francisco is descending towards.
The situation in San Francisco also provides a test ground for what will be needed to resolve the problem. The solution may be, unfortunately, to return to the original definition and consequence of crime. Sad to say, but if stealing is socially unacceptable, then the answer is to remove that person from society in the short term. Various treatment options can be explored, but it must first get that person off the street. Stealing is unacceptable and the consequences must be greater than the benefit of making the attempt.
The consequences for not deterring crime are already out there. Whether it is Detroit or St. Louis or Baltimore, businesses will not operate in communities where there is lawlessness. And, eventually, people will not want to live in cities where they feel unsafe and have fewer opportunities for their “pursuit of happiness,” whether it is working at jobs they enjoy or purchasing products they desire.
While in politics people vote at the ballot box, in economics they vote with their feet. As certain as the law of gravity is the law of supply in economics. The very existence of supply is dependent on somebody’s willingness and ability to generate a product or service. Whether it is my quest for almond abstract, Walgreens’ closure of stores in San Francisco, or the implosion of commerce in Cuba and Venezuela, the algebra is the same. Nothing mandates that a business must operate. When the environment impedes the ability to operate at a reasonable profit, business management must look to the political leaders. When they are unresponsive, it is only logical that businesses are unwilling to continue. They leave.
“Walgreens Closes 17 Stores In San Francisco Because Of Rampant Theft”, KRTH Radio, Michael Berry OpEd, May 26, 2021
© Copyright 2021 to Eric Niewoehner