What Have You Earned?

Some questions about Justin Keller and meritocracy in the tech industry.

Commando.io CEO Justin Keller recently wrote an open letter to the Mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, and the city’s police chief, Greg Suhr. Mr. Keller, horrified that he was forced to interact with homeless people in San Francisco, demanded that the mayor and police chief do something about the problem. It would be nice if he bothered to at least thinly veil his contempt for the people he encounters, but he has no time for small courtesies. “I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day,” he writes.

Why Mr. Keller believes that he “shouldn’t have to see” real people with real problems on the way to dinner would ordinarily be a mystery but he clarifies for us in the preceding sentence: “The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it.”

It’s probably fair to assume that Mr. Keller counts himself among the wealthy working people who have “earned” their right to live in SF, which Mr. Keller also states is the “worst it has ever been,” an observation presumably gleaned from his three whole years of living there. So let’s talk about what Mr. Keller has “earned.”

First, Mr. Keller is white and male, two seemingly superficial qualities that whether he realizes it or not, give him advantages in the tech industry. He will never be asked by a venture capitalist if he intends to get pregnant any time soon, how he plans to balance fatherhood and entrepreneurship, nor will potential investors make inappropriate comments about his appearance. Because he is white, no one will ever assume that he got his job or his education because someone had to make a quota, and not because he is intelligent and good at what he does.

I would also be curious to know whether Mr. Keller paid for the education he “went out and got” himself, or whether Ma and Pa Keller paid for it. There are many people who can’t take on entrepreneurial risk because they leave school with six figures in student loans. (It’s possible that Mr. Keller put himself through school, but given his seeming lack of exposure to working class people, I’m inclined to think he didn’t.)

Did Mr. Keller “earn” his race? His gender? His parents and their willingness to pay for his education?

And let’s back up: he has two parents, both of whom are still alive and invested enough in their son’s life to visit him in San Francisco where they can all eat a meal at a nice restaurant. Did Mr. Keller earn that?

Mr. Keller also seems to assume that he has his wealth because he worked harder than others. Mr. Keller is not working multiple jobs to support a family and barely making ends meet. He has enough leisure time and income to go to nice restaurants and see movies in the theater. Is it harder to run a startup than it is to work overtime in a blue collar job? It might require a specialized skill set, but I would wager that it is not harder and that the taxi drivers who ferry Mr. Keller around San Francisco and the waiters who take his order at the fancy San Francisco restaurant he likes and the people who clean his apartment (and so on) go home just as exhausted at the end of the day as he does. Probably more so, given that he likely spends much of his time sitting at desk or in meetings. So what does “working harder” mean to Mr. Keller?

And does Mr. Keller really think that wealth is always earned? I know many entrepreneurs who have had exits, and a not insignificant number of them started with inherited wealth, which they used to capitalize their first businesses, and their family connections played a role in the ultimate sale of their companies. I don’t begrudge them their resources or inclination to use them. But did they earn that? Simply by being born to the right parents? Do people who are not born to the right parents “earn” their poverty?

But Mr. Keller’s obliviousness with regard to what he deserves and has earned is only eclipsed by his utter lack of compassion for the people he’s encountering because he imagines that their lives are the products of laziness and/or stupidity. He does not realize that we’re all one psychological breakdown away from being exactly where they are. Or one medical bankruptcy. Or one disabling accident.

Perhaps Mr. Keller thinks those things can’t happen to him, or that if they do, he’ll be taken care of by the parents who have sheltered him so heavily that his delicate constitution can’t handle the reality of the world around him — so much so that he demands that city officials construct a bubble in which he can live, an artificial community of bourgeois comforts where suffering in public is not allowed. In fact, he thinks he has a right to it.

But that is not San Francisco (thank fucking god) and if it were, it would be a culturally bankrupt Stepford community populated by insufferable, entitled white wealthy man-children who think they’ve earned their citizenship because their myopic understanding of their own achievements necessitates the erasure of the advantages they had in accumulating their toys.

Is homelessness a problem in San Francisco? Yes. But it’s a problem because there are people who need help and can’t get it — many of them through no fault of their own. (No one “earns” mental illness, either.) It is not a problem simply because it inconveniences Mr. Keller.

The above article first appeared on Everup.com. Other articles you might like: On Internet friends, Livejournal and Cyberstalking, by Arthur Chu, and A Theory About Genius by Michael Michalko.