Today I read with great interest — and great disbelief — David Brooks’ latest
cliché column in which he tells us that everything is going to be alright, and in fact better than ever.
Better for whom, David?
As many regular readers know I live in San Jose, the tenth largest city in the country, the third largest in California. San Jose, as the Chamber of Commerce tells us, is the capital of Silicon Valley. For years, maybe decades, Silicon Valley has been the economic engine of California. When you think of high tech, you probably think of Silicon Valley, home to HP, Apple, Adobe Systems, and so forth. At one point it was home to the aerospace industry, too. And before all that, it was farmland. Most of the fruit sold in the rest of the country came from Santa Clara Valley. But that was long ago.
A quick look around the Valley today does not show signs of the next technological revolution; everywhere there are abandoned business parks. The quickly slapped together tilt-ups that optimistically defined the first wave of the technology revolution here now sit empty, or in some instances converted to evangelical churches.
The chip manufacturers that used to be here long ago left for Asia – as the desire to sell more chips for less money meant that chips were no longer a profitable-enough business. Only recently, IBM said it could no longer make enough money selling PCs and so sold the business off to China’s Lenovo. Empty parking lots sit where 20 years ago apricot orchards used to stand. Sometimes you see a few Apricot trees planted in the medians, fruit rotting beneath, like some sort of sore tooth reminder of what once was here. Ironically, one of the biggest streets in San Jose is Moorepark Avenue, named after the famous apricot tree that was developed here and fueled a lot of the early agricultural economy.
Canning was once a huge concern here. Del Monte, Marianni, Contadina and a handful of other big names had major operations here, but they left long ago for other locales. Mostly as a result of NAFTA, canning is now handled in Mexico, though the fruit might be grown in the states. The big long-empty canneries in San Jose have been converted into long-empty lofts. The old Del Monte plant in midtown San Jose kept a few of the original brick walls — as art. They are propped up with steel beams in the common spaces of the complex with a bench in front, maybe as some sort of reminder that things were once made here. It has a very disjointed look, but the real estate developers got some significant tax breaks for doing it, as historic preservation. I’m not kidding. If nothing else, the City of San Jose has a sense of humor.
The main drag of downtown San Jose is North First Street. At the very far north end are new business parks with gigantic For Lease signs in front. During the go-go ’90s before the dot com bust, these business parks were built on speculation. Cisco Systems owns a lot of them when they anticipated never-ending demand from Pets.com and their ilk. Sun Microsystems (remember them? They put the Dot in .com…) — recently bought by Oracle — owns a lot of land here, too. They bought the property of the local insane asylum when it was shut down because there was no desire to have tax dollars help the helpless (now the homeless), and now Sun/Oracle is trying to sell it.
Continuing south on North First Street you eventually hit the long-abandoned traditional downtown. Literally blocks and blocks of empty storefronts with paper in the windows. The Downtown association lets aspiring artists display their work in the windows with contact information should you want to buy any aspiring art.
One block houses City Year, which is an AmeriCorps project and the San Jose Ballet’s offices and school. Those are the only tenants for an entire city block, on both sides of the street. There is some question about the viability of the local Ballet corp which some years ago partnered with Cleveland Ballet to share costs. It doesn’t look well for the home team, and I think Cleveland cut out a while back. Another block has the original Bank of Italy which became the Bank of America. AP Giannini was a local boy. The bank has a big sign offering “office condos” for lease, whatever an office condo is. The once-grand lobby is now a nightclub.
At some point, North First Street becomes South First Street, which in turn becomes Monterey Road. The farther south you go, the more sprawl you see in the 180 square miles or so that is San Jose. Way down in the south part of town is where you will find the McMansions inside the gated communities, and the white-flight neighborhoods of the ’60s. Many McMansions are empty or foreclosed; one of my friends from IBM bought a foreclosed property there for pennies on the dollar. You can see the grandiosity and hubris of the past decade or so as farmland was bought up and turned into these monstrosities in the middle of nowhere, where you must drive everywhere to do anything. Peak Oil will be very interesting for these residents, with their shiney SUVs and Hummers parked out front, motorhome in the driveway. Our light rail system is nearby, but you hardly ever see anyone get on or off at those stations.
Finally, you get to the farms of Coyote Valley, which is perhaps the last of the old-time agriculture in San Jose. Right now it is lush and green, and the hills are dotted with cattle. There are some neat acres of furrows sprouting crops, and off the shoulder of the road, in the height of summer, you can find farm stands selling just-picked produce.
So, back to David Brooks, and his luscious orgy of optimism.
“In sum, the U.S. is on the verge of a demographic, economic and social revival, built on its historic strengths. The U.S. has always been good at disruptive change. It’s always excelled at decentralized community-building. It’s always had that moral materialism that creates meaning-rich products. Surely a country with this much going for it is not going to wait around passively and let a rotten political culture drag it down. “
If California, the eighth largest economy in the world is in shut-down and abandonment mode (and it certainly is here in Silicon Valley, the original TomorrowLand), then where is this revival going to happen, David? Is disruptive change some sort of code word for ruthless social darwinism? Is decentralized community-building GOP-speak for pull yourself up by your own damn bootstraps? I think the key word in the phrase moral materialism is materialism, and if nothing else in Silicon Valley is clear to me at this point it is that the selfish pursuit of wealth and material goods at the expense of the common good is a short-sighted policy.
And David, “Surely a country with this much going for it is not going to wait around passively and let a rotten political culture drag it down,” is exactly what we are doing, because people like you are actively tearing down the country.
My friends in the start-up world have told me that as part of the agreement to get funding from the Venture Capitalists up on Sand Hill Road they have to have a plan in place to not hire their engineering talent in the United States. And why should they since the Clinton Administration foreward there have been tax incentives and other incentives to move operations offshore? That’s policy, David, policy that you promoted. And so in one swoop we are not only ensuring the rise of unemployment here in the Silicon Valley, we are also enabling low-wage countries to continue to exploit their workers. We’ve made the mistake of thinking of these low-wage countries as our partners, when in fact they are our competitors.
You decry that our kids are falling behind in math and science, and I agree, but I also see why. Here in the Valley, they’ve grown up watching both of their parents work 80 hour weeks, forgo the family vacation because there is a new product release coming up, a tight schedule. They’ve watched their parents split up and get laid off, chewed up and spat out. One of my friends from long ago, a brilliant man with a Computer Science degree from an A-list engineering college now works for Best Buy selling flat panel teevee machines, instead of designing them. So these kids who should be the most likely to go into engineering and science can see that it is a dead-end road. Kids are not stupid, David. Why would they make the same mistakes as their parents?
So David, the policies that you and your friends championed are the exact policies that sent our canneries off shore, tore out our agriculture to build commodities that would eventually move off shore, and that ripped out farmland to build ex-urbs that cannot be sustained and day-by-day, year-by-year are abandoned and fall into decay. These are the policies you espoused, David, and they are the policies that killed Silicon Valley.