This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.
What do billionaires do with all their money? Maybe they buy off a Supreme Court justice. Maybe they get their kicks from diving to the extreme depths of an ocean in a tiny metal capsule. Maybe they start a space company to fly into outer space for fun.
Or, perhaps they fantasize about building a brand-new California city from scratch, one with more housing than San Francisco and more walk-ability than Los Angeles. The billionaires have money to burn. And so, they pool together a few drops of their obscene wealth into realizing this wild fantasy.
It’s true. The New York Times, in a series of reports in late August 2023, revealed that a small group of white male billionaires—a “who’s who of Silicon Valley”—has been secretly buying up thousands of acres of rural land in northern California’s Solano County since 2017 to build a city from the ground up.
The idea originated with a young Czech-born billionaire and former Goldman Sachs trader named Jan Sramek. When he was only 22 years old, a profile in New York Magazine quoted Sramek as having adopted libertarian writer Ayn Rand’s credo: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” That sentiment forms the through-line of his long-term Utopian plan to build his new, perfect city.
At 36, Sramek has succeeded in charming fellow billionaires into investing in a company that has been the face of his mysterious project. Flannery Associates LLC is now the largest landowner in Solano County. What he and his rich friends want is to transform the Bay Area’s poorest county into a bustling, cultured, walk-able metropolis, running on green energy and self-driving cars, with thousands of well-paid jobs. And they apparently think they know how to do it.
For years, local residents of Solano County wondered who was buying up parcels of land. News outlets speculated that the Chinese government was behind the purchases that circled Travis Air Force Base.
Even elected officials became concerned, with Ronald Kott, the mayor of nearby city Rio Vista, telling the press, “Nobody can figure out who they are… Whatever they’re doing—this looks like a very long-term play.” California congressional Representative John Garamendi, whose district encompasses Solano County, wanted to know, “Who are these people?” More importantly, “Where did they get the money where they could pay five to ten times the normal value that others would pay for this farmland?”
In retrospect, it’s not surprising that aside from government entities, the only ones with the money and audacity to embark on such a project are elite billionaires. They have a slick new website labeled California Forever, complete with attractive renderings of an idyllic city and platitudes about “good paying local jobs,” “homes of different sizes and price points,” and “walkable neighborhoods,” all built from a “consensus-minded plan.”
Now that the secret is out, what will we do about it? The billionaires are deluded in thinking they have the know-how, foresight, and intelligence to build a new city. But perhaps we as a society are equally deluded in believing that billionaires are smart enough to deserve the preposterous wealth they have accumulated.
Take Marc Andreessen, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist billionaire and one of Flannery’s investors. In a rambling, off-the-cuff essay in April 2020, Andreessen attempted to make the case that the only answer to society’s problems is to “build.” Build what? Anything! Everything!
Andreessen wanted to build more universities, more K-12 schools, and more highly automated factories. He wanted supersonic aircraft and millions of delivery drones. And if they weren’t being built, he wanted society to “force the incumbents to build these things.” To him, “building is how we reboot the American dream.”
In his essay, Andreessen laid down a challenge, ostensibly to governments: “Demonstrate that the public sector can build better hospitals, better schools, better transportation, better cities, better housing.”
Andreessen doesn’t understand why we as a society don’t want the same things that he does. “The problem,” he wrote, “is desire,” or the lack thereof. “We need to want these things.” How frustrating to be an idealistic billionaire and not have one’s desire to build masses of random things on a whim be shared by the rest of society!
Another Flannery investor and venture capitalist billionaire, Michael Moritz, has been more honest—at least to fellow investors—that it’s not about idealism as much as it is about profits. He wrote a 2017 note pitching the idea of building the fantasy California city in which, as the New York Times paraphrased, “[t]he financial gains [from the project] could be huge.” In Moritz’s own words, “If the plans materialize anywhere close to what is being contemplated, this should be a spectacular investment.” Unsurprisingly, billionaires, even in their wildest, most idealistic-sounding dreams, want to always ensure they can reap financial rewards.
Solano County, in addition to being the Bay Area’s poorest, is home to the region’s largest Black population by percentage and also has the highest unemployment rate. In other words, it is ripe for capitalist exploitation.
On the surface, it seems as though California’s real-world problems are cramping the billionaires’ style and all they want to do is realize a Utopian vision. But in truth, the billionaires are the source of much of the state’s problems.
As their net worth has soared, billionaires have put upward pressure on the cost of living in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto, San Jose, and Mountain View. According to the 2023 Silicon Valley Index, “the San Francisco Bay Area is home to the greatest concentration of billionaires in the world.” The report also points out that Silicon Valley has the nation’s largest wealth gap, and, specifically, “the top 0.001 percent of Silicon Valley’s households [are] holding more wealth than the nearly 500,000 households in the bottom 50 percent.”
Rising housing prices, increased homelessness, traffic gridlock, and a generally higher cost of living are all the result of massive wealth differences—an inequality so deeply unnatural that it inevitably perverts the ability of cities to cope and skews the ability of ordinary people to survive and thrive.
The billionaires are steeped in so much hubris and so little wisdom that they don’t see beyond their own noses. Their answer to the problems they have created is to start from scratch and pour billions into a fantasy project whose details are so murky they won’t even share them with democratically elected representatives, and whose manifestation will likely replicate the same mess it is claiming to fix.
If their project fails, all they will lose is a few of their many billions.
What will the rest of us lose? Land, homes, resources, environmental regulations, tax revenues, and other perhaps things we cannot even foresee.
We need to have a good answer to the challenge that Sramek, Andreessen, Moritz, and their ilk have posed to the rest of us: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”
Will we stop them?