In 2014, the city council in Mountain View, California, a city of 81,000 in the heart of Silicon Valley that hosts Google, Mozilla, Intuit, and other high-tech firms, approved a 400,000 square foot project to house thousands of Facebook employees and other tenants. In the runup to that approval, local restaurateurs complained to the city council about Google’s free food for employees policy, a common Silicon Valley perk.
As a result, when the Mountain View City Council approved the development, they added a condition that Facebook could not provide free food to its workers.
Facebook, and other high-tech firms in Silicon Valley, don’t provide free food out of some altruistic impulse, they do so to boost employee morale and, importantly, keep them in the office working—it takes time to walk out of vast campuses and make one’s way to a restaurant where, frequently the wait is longer and the prices are far higher than in a company cafeteria, even if that cafeteria sells its food at market prices (there’s no tipping in a cafeteria).
Yet, local restaurant owners are integral members of the community. They vote. They write campaign checks. They’re members of the chamber of commerce. Young tech workers are likely to commute long distances into work as they can’t afford to live close by. They can’t vote for the Mountain View city council.
Making their intent abundantly clear, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Mountain View mayor Michael Kasperzak as saying, “It really was geared more around trying to make sure we didn’t have 400,000 square feet of office space with people that never left the building.”
The Mountain View council may force Google to operate by the same rules as it looks to expand into the city. Further, local voters may approve a ballot initiative to levy an employee tax to fund affordable housing and transportation.
Free, high-quality food for employees has been a legendary employee benefit from the early days of the high-tech industry. Google brought a chef on board two decades ago. Most tech firms don’t manage their own cafeterias, though, preferring instead to hire corporate caterers to run their food operations. But, corporate caters aren’t as high-profile as local restaurants with a storefront. As far as the Mountain View City Council is concerned: corporate caterers, bad; restaurants, good.
Lost in Mountain View’s picking of winners and losers in the economic marketplace is an issue that has loomed large in California’s political landscape over the past dozen years: the fight over climate change.
As Governor Jerry Brown was meandering through his 30-plus year public service career, he spent a one-term stint as California’s attorney general from 2007 to 2011. In that capacity, he enforced California’s new laws (AB 32, SB 375 and others) designed to reduce the state’s global greenhouse gas emissions. Brown even intervened to stop a development in Riverside County because it threatened to generate an unacceptable amount of greenhouse gasses.
This raises an interesting issue. Forcing high-tech titans to end their free food perk will increase greenhouse gas emissions as employees head out to forage, many of them taking their cars to drive to local restaurants. This, of course, not only increases emissions but also increases traffic on the local roads. More importantly, it flies in the face of California's quixotic quest to save the world by itself.
But, as with most progressive government interventions, good intentions trump reality. No doubt, the Mountain View City Council will force local businesses to buy carbon offsets to make up for the added emissions caused by their no free food policy.
The result is a mess of competing policy priorities that accomplish little more than virtue signaling and vote buying while intruding into decisions best left to individuals, not government.
At America’s founding, the signers of the Declaration of Independence made clear the purpose of our government: to secure liberty. Rare in stated purpose and difficult in implementation, securing liberty for we the people often involves competing ideals: for instance, promoting public safety is in tension with “The right of people to be secure… against unreasonable searches and seizures…” Public safety and an expectation of privacy are competing goods; however, the Founders saw fit to put their thumb on the scales in favor of privacy, knowing well the tendency of government power to grow at the expense of liberty.
In the case of Mountain View, we see a city council completely unmoored from any understanding of the purpose of government. In time, more of Silicon Valley’s big employers will find that other parts of the nation have a lot to offer: affordable housing, less traffic, lower taxes and—elected representatives less eager to dictate corporate human resources policy.
This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on July 27, 2018.