I’ve been compelled, and I feel kind of sick about it, to read about the Google executive who died when a $1,000-a-time call girl—who found serial killers exciting and sexy— shot him up with too much heroin, on his yacht. The picture of decadence. Nine months earlier, his obit had pictured him as a father of five, married seventeen years whose greatest pleasure was spending time with his family. Of course, people being the complex creatures they are, that might also be true.
I’m struggling to feel sympathy. But this story awakens class resentment. People like the Google executive, Forrest Hayes, have boatloads of money (an ocean-view house on sale for $4.9 million) and this is how they spend it? This is the “leadership” of those who’ve “worked harder than others”? For once, I appreciate Bill and Melinda Gates’ benevolent-dictator philanthropy. It’s quite a few rungs higher up the ladder than getting high on yachts with hookers.
But the story also brings up a fundamental belief: too much money is bad for people, absolutely bad for the people who work for them, but also bad for the holders of wealth themselves. It scares me to think these out-of-touch people lead our economy, lobby for tax policies, set wage scales, and otherwise push their perspectives with great entitlement and authority while merrily breaking any laws they themselves don’t feel like following. How many executives are too busy getting high in various ways to concern themselves with the life of folks who work for them? I acknowledge of course, that some great leaders exist in the realms of addiction and dysfuction; many have struggled with sexual demons or drug problems. But I’m so sick of the “if you worked as hard as I did, you, too, could be rich” trope. Nobody works harder than the three-job minimum wage folks I know about.
Silicon Valley is full of hookers, expensive ones for the big wheels and less expensive for the small fry. On the street where there’s a community services agency I sometimes go to, I’ve seen them often, even at eleven o’clock in the morning. Demand and supply. I wondered who their clients were. Immigrant men with no family? High-tech workers? Married men.
I’m somewhat sympathetic to lonely men resorting to hookers. What I resent is the sometimes-arrogant bigwigs who often can hide their unsavory side behind a bright and desirable shell, sometimes while pointing a finger at ghetto dysfunction: that kind lies wide open to condemnation and disgust. The Hayes story might never have come to light if police had believed the yacht captain who lied that on-board security cameras weren’t working. The captain himself probably looks like Success too, but isn’t he basically a pimp? Interestingly, his name is still shielded from public view, his picture kept from the papers.
I find myself wondering how big this world of Silicon Valley decadence is. The call girl, Alix Tichelman (most of the focus has been on her, not the executive) claims to have a list of two hundred clients, including other high-tech executives, mostly acquired through a site for sugar daddies. How many execs are sweating it out right now, fearing exposure?
Sometimes a story like this is about a working-class hooker and a rich john, but Tichelman was perfectly wealthy herself; she attended college, was the daughter of a high-tech CEO. There was no economic reason for her to become a prostitute. Was it perhaps like some Silicon Valley investors: the lure of really big money?
More of Tichelman’s personal life appears each day, her poetry, her Facebook posts. They humanize her. But Hayes just has the success photos. His wife and children exist somewhere invisibly. They already faced the shock of his death, his funeral, the condolences. Now a demon pops up scattering dirt over them all. I want to sympathize with Hayes, to see his human side—in photos he looks like a nice person— but I also think of a recent article I read in the New Yorker about the writer, Edward St. Aubyn, a man from the pinnacle of British society whose father raped him repeatedly during his childhood. And I can’t help thinking about who’s in jail and who isn’t.
Obviously, I’m far on the outside, and that’s a dangerous position, making it too easy to judge, but I wonder about the callousness of so many people with power and money in Silicon Valley. How far from everyday life have they spun out? San Jose has the largest unsheltered homeless population in the U.S., and hundreds of thousands pay fifty percent of their income just for one crappy room. Every night, homeless shelters shut their doors on people who want to come in. And yet, we fiddle and delay. Google looks for yet more ways to avoid paying their share toward the common good. “The company avoided about $2 billion in worldwide income taxes in 2011 by shifting $9.8 billion in revenue into a Bermuda shell company, almost double the total from three years before, filings show.”
Is it possible that some good could come from this exposure, that some people might re-examine the insanity of blockbuster success, so much money that people are beyond democratic functions? Could we look with a critical eye at the weight of wealth that’s squashing the middle class and sometimes even snuffs out the lives of those sitting on top?