Strip away the veneer of Silicon Valley, and it is mostly a paradox. Almost nothing is what it is professed to be. Ostensibly, communities like Menlo Park and Palo Alto are elite enclaves, where power couples can easily make $300,000 to $700,000 a year as mid-level dot.com managers.
But often these 1 percenter communities are façades of sorts. Beneath veneers of high-end living, there are lives of quiet 1-percent desperation. With new federal and California tax hikes, aggregate income-tax rates on dot.commers can easily exceed 50 percent of their gross income. And hip California 1 percenters do not enjoy superb roads and schools or a low-crime state in exchange for forking over half their income.
Housing gobbles much of the rest of their pay. A 1,300-square-foot cottage in Mountain View or Atherton can easily sell for $1.5 million, leaving the owners paying $5,000 to $6,000 on their mortgage and another $1,500 to $2,000 in property taxes each month. Add in the de rigueur Mercedes, BMW, or Lexus and the private-school tuition, and the apparently affluent turn out to have not all that much disposable income. A visitor from Mars might look at their relatively tiny houses, frenzied go-getter lifestyle, and leased BMWs, and deem them no better off materially than middle-class state employees three hours away in supposedly dismal Merced, who earn 20 percent as much, but live in a home twice as large, with only 10 percent of the monthly mortgage and tax costs.
Given exorbitant taxes and housing prices, obviously it is not just the high salaries that draw so many to the San Francisco Bay Area. The “ambiance” of year-round temperate weather, the collective confidence rippling out from new technology, the spinoff from great universities like UC Berkeley and Stanford, and the hip culture of fine eating and entertainment all tend to convince Silicon Valley denizens that they are enviable even though they must work long hours to pay high taxes and to buy tiny and often old homes.
Silicon Valley liberal politics are equally paradoxical, reflect this quiet desperation, and mask hyper-self-interest, old-fashioned rat-race competition, and 21st-century suburban versions of keeping up with the Joneses. The latter may be green, support gay marriage, and oppose restrictions on abortion, but they still are the Joneses of old who define their success by showing off to neighbors what they have, whether high-performance cars or hyper-achieving kids.
In the South Bay counties, Democratic registration outnumbers Republican often 2 to 1. If liberals like Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi did not represent the Bay Area, others like them would have to be invented. Yet, most Northern California liberal politics are abstractions that apparently provide some sort of psychological compensation for otherwise living lives that are illiberal to the core.
Take K–12 schools. Currently, there is a stampede to enroll students in upscale private academies — often at $30,000 a year. That seems strange, when local public high schools like Menlo-Atherton, Woodside, and Palo Alto were traditionally among the highest-ranked campuses in an otherwise dismal state public-school system.
But things have changed — or at least are perceived to have changed. About 25 percent of the Silicon Valley population is now Hispanic, representing a huge influx of service employees — to work in hotels and restaurants, as nannies and housecleaners, in landscaping and construction — and their presence has expanded beyond the old barrios of San Jose and Redwood City.
The result is that Silicon Valley liberals are apparently worried about the public schools, given that second-generation Hispanics are perceived to be disproportionately represented in statistics on gang activity, illegitimacy, and high-school dropout rates. In crude terms, would a Google executive really wish his child’s hard-driving college-prep curriculum or enlightened social calendar altered somewhat to accommodate second-language teenagers whose parents recently arrived illegally from Oaxaca?
Something similar happened in the Deep South in the 1960s, when court-mandated integration brought black students into formerly all-white enclaves, spurring a white flight to private academies. Upscale hip whites and Asians in Northern California, of course, do not have southern twangs and in theory are multiculturalists to the core. But they are no more invested in a truly diverse public-school experience for their children than southern separatists of the past.
When I suggest to my Silicon Valley friends that their fixation on academic achievement is misplaced and that the academic peer and institutional pressure that my own children might have lost out on by going to the almost exclusively Mexican and Mexican-American public schools of southern Fresno County was balanced by the “life experiences” of dealing with those of all classes, races, and attitudes, they think I am unhinged. Diversity, in other words, is a cosmic ideal of voting for Barack Obama, not a cross that a Stanford-bound kindergartener must bear in the here and now.