Public Comment

Commentary: Premature Ejaculation

By Wilson Riles
Tuesday May 15, 2007

Among other things, the timing was wrong. The Dellums’ taskforce recommendations were turned over to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce before they were finished. They were released before they were merged into a coherent plan and before there was sufficient indication of agreement from the mayor on the individual recommendations or priority order of implementation. The Oakland Chamber took these raw recommendations, used the pro bono services of a consultant with particular biases (McKinsey), and presented the framework they had already been working on as Oakland’s economic future at the mayor’s Economic Summit. Unlike McKinsey’s spokesperson, the taskforce presenters were literally chosen at the last minute. Was this the mayor’s timing or the chamber’s timing? The chamber wants to get out in front of an economic development process that it is not in control of for the first time in the history of Oakland? 

The McKinsey Report laid out very little that was new about Oakland’s economic situation. It conveniently ignored the city’s racist development history that is told so well in the book Baghdad by the Bay; past wrongheaded business decision-making is part of the reason that Oakland is in the economic condition that it is in. The worst aspect of the report is the injection of biotechnology as a primary direction for Oakland to develop. This smells like that same old, purely self-serving misdirection. 

In 2005 in their report, The Dynamics of California Biotech Industry, Zhang and Patel note that “…despite California’s dominance in biotech, the sector is not likely to be a powerful engine of economic growth in the state. First, nationwide, the biotech industry involves fewer than 200,000 employees … Second, this industry has an insatiable appetite for new ideas and for venture capital to support the development of those ideas, … and that only the most highly trained and educated scientists are likely to be involved.” Why should Oakland promote an industry that is going to bring few jobs to residents?  

Well, it turns out that McKinsey’s spokesperson is an executive member of the Bay Area Council, which is busy lobbying for more H1B visas so that the biotech industry will be able to import more foreign scientists. (You do not have to pay foreigners as much and they make few demands.) Since the defeat of affirmative action, very few Oakland residents will be trained at the University of California to take those few available biotech jobs. The industry is also chasing Proposition 71 (stem cell public bond) money since the venture capitalists are moving on to green technology investment. Biotech desperately needs space for research facilities. In 2005 the Bay Area Council got three Oakland City Council members to sign a letter supporting the San Francisco Stem Cell Institute and offering up Oakland land for facilities. They had already squeezed huge concessions out of Mayor Newsom for the Institute. But SF won’t get many jobs for residents either. 

Mayor Newsom has just launched the Business Council on Climate Change, getting a step on Oakland in becoming the center for green technology. Green technology is where the future growth is in producing good jobs that are more accessible to Oakland residents. It is with green technology that there will be more small business and general entrepreneurial opportunities. This is where more black business people ought to be looking; there is going to be a big market here. Green tech was in the back of the McKinsey report and given little attention. The big boys don’t fully control it yet. 

Are not jobs for residents more important than profits for millionaires? Will the follow-up meetings from the summit be dominated by chamber types? Or will they be a part of a process with other knowledgeable folks on an equal basis and dedicated to the betterment of all of Oakland’s residents? It remains to be seen. 


Wilson Riles is a former Oakland City Council member.