Out of downtown: Wealthy financier Warren Hellman has crossed his big-business allies to help progressive causes
"Usually I'm directly involved," he told us in an interview earlier this year. "I've always said that I don't like to go to the racetrack to just look at the horses. The fun of being a principal is that you're standing at the track and not saying, 'Gee, that's a beautiful gray horse.' You're saying, 'Come on, he's got to win!' So I'm almost always invariably invested in the companies that we work with, either individually or through the firm."
Unlike many Wall Street barons who strive to control a company and bring in new executives, flip it for a quick profit, or liquidate it, Hellman said his firm tries to identify solid companies and help facilitate what they do. "We don't usually take over companies. I always think that we provide a service to help the businesses," he said. "Our job is kind of the opposite of owning a factory. Our job is to be sure the people who run the business feel like it's their business."
Similarly, he thinks capitalists need to feel a sense of ownership over society's problems, something he thinks is taking root in San Francisco and other economic centers, particularly among the younger generations. "It's about understanding how much suffering there is on the other side and trying to figure out how that suffering can be alleviated," he said. "I think it's partly good economics that as you bring people up, they're able to do more for society. If nothing else, they're able to buy more and shop at a Wal-Mart or something — probably someplace you would wildly disapprove of — and buy goods and services. But I don't think it's that narrow."
Rather, he believes that everyone has a little progressive in them, a little desire to cooperatively solve our collective problems rather than pass them off to future generations. He sees a marked change from his days at Lehman Bros.
"Everybody was into making it," he said, noting that many capitalists then did charity work as a means of attaining social status but focused mostly on the accumulation of wealth. But, he said, the new generation of capitalists seems genuinely interested in improving the world.
"The feeling for giving back in the next generation, in the now 25- to 35-year-olds, it's just an order-of-magnitude difference than it was for people who are now in their 40s and early 50s," Hellman said. "I'm very encouraged."
Yet the flip side is that, in Hellman's view, downtown doesn't wield as much power as it once did. Low political contribution limits have made politicians less dependent on downtown money, creating fewer shot callers, while democratizing tools such as the Internet have broadened the political dialogue.
"For the last 30 years we have become an increasingly tolerant city, and that's great," he said. "In the old days, [the Guardian] complained about downtown, and yeah, no shit, downtown really did control the city. The benefit was as that slipped away, the city became fairer and more open to argument. So now downtown hardly has any power at all anymore. In a sense, that's a good thing. Tolerance grew tremendously when the city wasn't dictated to."
That tolerance caused street fairs to pop up all over town and festivals such as Hellman's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass to blossom in Golden Gate Park. Bike lanes have taken space from cars, events such as Halloween in the Castro have gotten crazier, street protests have gotten bigger and more frequent, and people have felt more free to fly their freak flags. And all that freedom eventually triggered a backlash from groups of isolated NIMBYs who complain and often find sympathetic ears at city hall.