by Noah Kamrat, Co-Founder & CEO of Signalmash
Recently a colleague of mine posted in a technology business forum, commenting that he can no longer recognize our downtown here in Portland. He was talking about homelessness and garbage in our streets. Hyperbole aside, homelessness is a huge problem in Portland, as it is in other cities throughout the United States. A pandemic plus a severe affordable housing shortage has resulted in more and more individuals going unhoused.
What struck me about the tone of my colleague’s post was that it seemed to suggest the problem of homelessness should be or could be fixed solely by the government. This is a sentiment I often hear from the business-friendly technology community I am part of. The logic goes something like this: the free market and competition are the best ways to deal with challenges we have in our society… except for social ills like homelessness or addiction, which somehow magically should be fixed by the government. Also, the government should fix these issues without taking a penny more of my money in taxes.
How is it possible that with all the incredible and transformational change we see in technology, we as business leaders in the tech sector can’t come up with market-based solutions for poverty and homelessness? I can’t tell you how often I have heard business colleagues outside of Oregon decry the lawlessness and homelessness in Portland’s streets (greatly exaggerated by the click-bait media, but also observable). And yet, nowhere do I see suggested, regardless of partisanship, solutions that are not fundamentally government based. Be it through more policing or more social workers, the underlying problem is always something the government must fix.
Now, I am in no way minimizing the great work of our civil servants. Nor am I one to argue that the free market is a panacea for all the problems we face today. We know that we need an effective government at all levels, at the very least to play a supporting role in our economy by enforcing our laws and by providing access and opportunity to all.
And the contribution of the government to private enterprise can’t be denied. Government, often in partnership with the private market, helped build railroads, highways, space programs, and the Internet to name just a few projects. However, private markets provided the needed entrepreneurship and innovation, what political philosopher John Stuart Mill calls “the marketplace of ideas,” to ensure these projects succeeded.
Ironically, it is in part because of American capitalism’s huge success in innovation and technology that our very ability to compromise and function in society is now under threat. The checks and balances that were built into our form of self-governance centuries ago assumed partisans in the halls of congress, “carnival barkers” on our streets, and political factions printing pamphlets. How could founders foresee the slick ubiquity of social media with its data-driven misinformation campaigns? And today’s right/left, liberal/conservative, Republic/Democrat binary paradigm fails to provide any rational guideposts for this debate. I am a student of political science and I have no idea what any of these labels mean any more. I just know that I know very illiberal liberals and very radical conservatives. I often joke that the most passionate voices in our politics either are conspiracy theorists or people who don’t understand math, or both!
To be sure, there are times when I don’t recognize our downtown. But it’s not just the unhoused people or garbage in our downtown streets that I notice. I also see encouraging resilience in Portland. After years of pandemic, isolation, protests, and increased gun violence, I see new businesses opening and the hustle-bustle of crowded sidewalks. Surely, as a business community, we can harness some of this ingenuity to come up with our own solutions (in partnership with the government or not), to help solve the many challenges that we have as a community.
It’s easy for us to make observations and the “Twitterverse” is certainly filled with all kinds of observations. However, I assert that it is time for business leaders to step up, stop merely posting comments online, and prove we are the innovators and change agents that will create a better future for our children.
First published on Medium.