Absurdity in the News

I don't really mean for this to be just another clip-n-comment weblog, but I need to bootstrap myself into action, and most of the bees in my bonnet at the moment are there at the instigation of one thing or another I saw on the web somewhere. ZDNet posted ZDNet posted this piece of yellow journalism yesterday. Like most other news sites that really want to be synergistic portal components in trans-media edutainment news empires, ZDNet is occasionally given to running pieces that tie in with some news "story" introduced by the TV end of the business. This amusing item, about a high-tech executive who was laid off and now moves office furniture for a living and whose $50,000/year salary is too small, by Silicon Valley standards, to allow him to live anywhere except in a homeless shelter. "[W]hat I do is go to places like Compaq and Sun Microsystems and you-name-it and move all these exotic computers and desks and things from one office to another. Then I come back here and play with my laptop 486," says our hero.

There's a saying in my family: "What's most wrong with this picture?" And this story is so iffily attached to reality that I don't know where to begin. Ordinary objections -- live in Oakland, move somewhere reasonable, aren't there better uses of tax money -- don't even seem to apply. I think this is because the article isn't about the real Silicon Valley so much as it is about the imagined Silicon Valley, a place so overwhelmingly defined by ridiculous geekiness and ridiculous paper wealth that the strangest urban legends might pass for credible reportage. There's a backlash in effect right now, so the stories are unflaggingly negative, but they were equally absurd back when they talked about the Valley as the paradisial fountain of endless wealth.

I'm not actually seriously concerned that homeless-in-the-Valley-on-50K stories misrepresent Valley life. Cultures that thrive on their own mythos don't generally concern themselves with the precise nature of that mythos: having and maintaining an outsize reputation at all is the important part. I'm more concerned that this is the level on which any discussion of wealth in this country seems to take place. Especially with our nation's recent fixation on the stock market and the Federal Reserve (about which fixation, more some other time), all considerations of money focus on wealth to the exclusion of poverty; the last time I checked, not everyone was rich yet. The unsubtle critiques of wealth generated by news items like the ZDNet one are doing a fat lot of good for this nation's impoverished homeless. It's the gap between $5,000 and $50,000 that troubles me, not the one between $50,000 and $500,000.