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Five Days of Hope and Despair

Day Three. Ground Zero

On day three I am eating alone on University Avenue, a mile from the heart of the Stanford campus. Downtown Palo Alto is ground zero of the eBay, Facebook, Apple, Google, Adobe, Oracle, and Hewlett-Packard revolution. The culture is international, and part Stanford, part Silicon Valley -- or is there a difference anymore? Everyone looks like they are either a student or were a student. There are lots of Europeans and Asians, all young. I can detect four different languages from my corner table. From the conservations I eavesdrop on, these guys are confident and upwardly mobile, if not already rich technicians. Men are dressed better than women. Metrosexual heaven I guess.

On the street, few seem over 40. America is supposed to be in decline, but the best and the brightest flock here on the assumption that unlike the Arab world, India, China, or Africa, where your name, your race, your gender, your caste, your class, your age, your religion -- or your first cousin -- propels or hinders your trajectory, in Silicon Valley it is more often merit: as in, how much money can your skills make for us? University Avenue is a sort of electronic version of turn-of-the-century Nome, Alaska, or Sutter’s Fort.

It would be easy, as I often do, to caricature this superficial world -- $2 million, 1,500 square-foot cottages that would be worth $70,000 two hours away in uninviting Modesto; BMWs and Mercedes sports cars using 30% of their horsepower to rev 100 yards until the next stoplight.

Yet all that said, like the corporate agriculture I saw yesterday, one should not discount the smell of success in the air. Again, come here and you can see why China did not invent Google, or even why Germany did not invent Apple or Japan didn't invent Facebook. There are no prerequisites other than smarts, aggressiveness, a good degree that one earned, and lots of confidence that blind merit -- and some luck -- should prevail.

From their conversations, those in Palo Alto seem Obamites to the core, but their leftish politics are more like a contrived medieval penance, an Al Gore-like “offset” for the worry of caring so much about having nice things. And nice things are everywhere. Doctrinaire liberalism is predicated on new federal and California taxes stopping right now, at taking only 55-60% of their incomes. Go much over that and some in the Bay Area might well turn into Reaganites. I don’t think the twenty-something, foreign-national guy next to me who just stepped into a Porsche takes seriously “You didn’t build that.” He seems instead to assume that he earned his car and has no problem letting me see that it is worth three of mine.

Day Four. The Panorama

I am up in the eleventh floor of the stately Hoover Tower, on the Stanford campus, taking in a 180-degree view of the world that Leland and Jane Stanford built well over a century ago. I read often of Leland Stanford. Eight miles away from my farm was the 1880 Mussel Slough shootout -- which spawned Frank Norris’s The Octopus (I was reading his novel a week before I too got a ruptured appendix in Libya, faring better than the 32-year-old Norris did when his burst in1 902 San Francisco).

Even the best apologist for the Southern Pacific Railroad would have a hard time defending the railroad’s land gymnastics designed to cheat those whom they enticed upon the land. (OK -- I confess: I grew up in a conservative Democratic household of homesteaders whose ancestors arrived in 1870, bought 180 acres of land from the SP Railroad, and passed on to the next four generations animosity for both the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads.) The Big Four, the Central Pacific Railroad quartet -- Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford -- built California (also intermeshed in finance, electricity, banking, development, agriculture, etc.) in the way later visionaries built Silicon Valley. But what a tough bunch they were, at least by modern standards and in comfortable hindsight.