There's a storm raging in dot-comville. Sure, you can still get a free T-shirt and a good martini at a bunch of new-hot-thing launch parties, but don't confuse the gravy train with the money train.
The tech-heavy Nasdaq stock index continues to drop, having already lost a third of its value since March 10. Venture funding, the heavily courted capital that allows small businesses to launch and modest ones to grow, is scarcer than facial hair on those Hanson boys. The twitchy stock market has put the kibosh on several initial public offerings, including a planned $281 million fund-raiser for the major portal AltaVista.
Now pink slips are raining over Silicon Valley and Alley, from layoffs at AltaVista and KBKids.com to the death of troubled start-ups DEN, Pixelon and Boo.com, which ate up $120 million in investor money before going poof. The Internet gold rush ain't over, but last year's let-the-good-times-roll sure is.
As I watch the stock tickers rise and fall, I keep hearing this phrase in the back of my head: ``The time to fix your roof is when the sun is shining.'' John F. Kennedy said it first, but Bill Bradley made it a mantra during his short run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Today, the hoopster's folksy plea for America to solve its chronic social problems during the good times seems downright prescient. While we've been partying it up on borrowed money -- yes, we Americans are spending even more than we're earning -- we've been leaving the toughest issues untouched.
Health care: still broken. Forty-four million Americans lack medical insurance in the richest country in the world, a trend that's getting worse over time.
Prisons: 2 million Americans live behind bars, many incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes. One reason is because we lack enough treatment options for addicts, a problem that a little thought and money should be able to address.
And what about the fortunes, so to speak, of the poor?
A January Federal Reserve report revealed that between 1995 and 1998, families earning less than $10,000 a year saw their assets fall from $4,800 to $3,600, and families with incomes of $10,000 to $25,000 saw their net worth fall from $31,000 to just under $25,000. Middle-class families with incomes of up to $99,000 experienced virtually no change, while families making $100,000 or more experienced a jump from $1.412 million in assets to $1.728 million on average. The poor really are getting poorer. And the rich, well . . .
Sure, we've made progress during the boom, shrinking unemployment and crime and going from a federal budget deficit to a surplus. But that's no reason we can't talk about how far we have to go and how much more we could accomplish if we tried.
When we're fat and happy, we just want to enjoy life. We deal best with social problems when the country is in trouble. Americans forged Social Security as a result of the Great Depression, when most Americans could identify with the suffering the elderly poor.
We shored up America's math and science education following the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first satellite.
We reformed America's gun laws following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and later following the shooting of President Reagan and his aide, Jim Brady. We're a nation skilled in crisis management. But the more chronic a problem seems, the less likely we are to address it -- especially when we have the means to do so.
If we won't change our mentality, then all we have to do is wait -- wait for the boom to end, for the money to dry up, for the middle class to have to live close enough to poverty to notice it again. We've been living in an economic bubble, the longest economic expansion on record. But when economists talk about the threat of a recession these days, you can almost hear the fear in their voices. The bottom always drops out sometime. But why do we always have to wait for the rain before we climb up on the roof and start hammering?
Chideya is a New York journalist. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.
© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press