economics

The N.D.A. In Silicon Valley Real Estate

As an information technology (I.T.) worker in Silicon Valley, I’ve signed many Non-Disclosure Agreements (N.D.A.s) over the years to keep secret anything that I learn during the course of my employment. Due to the nature of my work in I.T. support, I seldom have access to privilege information that an outsider might find valuable. I’m not surprise to read in The New York Times that the N.D.A. culture has come to real estate in Silicon Valley, as newly minted millionaires—or billionaire, in the case of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—renovate their McMansions.

These powerful documents, demanding the utmost secrecy, are being required of anyone associated with the homes of a small but growing number of tech executives, according to real estate agents, architects and contractors. Sometimes the houses themselves are bought through trusts or corporate entities so that the owners’ names are not on public deeds.

Requiring construction workers to sign N.D.A.s raise more questions about who the owner is than it does to protect the owner’s privacy. Most N.D.A.s has a time limit. After several years goes by, nothing prevents a construction worker from revealing that the bathroom fixtures were solid gold, the kitchen counters were from handpicked marble slabs from Italy, and the multi-level garage has a car elevator. If wealthy owners want to maintain their privacy, they should dial down their public display of conspicuous consumption.

A 92-year-old Vermont man passed away recently, surprising family and friends when he left an $8 million stock portfolio to the local library and non-profit hospital. He drove around in a 2007 Toyota Yaris, collected tree branches for firewood, and held his winter coat together with a safety-pin. Because he lived a modest lifestyle that didn’t draw unwanted attention, no one knew he was wealthy.

My father built the planter walls for the million-dollar homes in the Silver Creek Valley area. The conspicuous consumption offended his Great Depression sensibilities with so much money wasted on so few people. That the city of San Jose spent $200 million to extend water and sewer into the arid foothills offended my own sensibilities. If you throw enough campaign contributions at city hall, you too can get taxpayer money to run water uphill. We both gloated over the news that the homeowner association nearly filed for bankruptcy after the Great Recession, as the million-dollar homes stood empty and the remaining residents balked at paying higher fees to maintain the common areas.

My brother’s in-laws bought a million-dollar home in the foothills of Gilroy, which I thought was obscene. The kitchen was larger than my studio apartment, and the wet bar was bigger than my kitchen. The in-laws bought the five-bedroom house to store family heirloom furniture that they couldn’t depart with but weren’t using anyway. Since they didn’t want to spend their retirement years cleaning a big house, they sold the house in a short sale and moved their furniture collection to a farmstead outside of Boston. The only cool thing I liked about that house was the 30-foot-tall wired fence that kept a prowling mountain cat away from the BBQ pit.

Rent-A-White-Man Super Bowl

I found the 2015 Super Bowl commercials somewhat lacking in the humor department. Nothing made me barked out aloud in laughter. (Although the Kia Sorento car commercial with Pierce Brosnan, who imagines himself being pitched for a James Bond-style car ride with snipers, missile launchers and explosions that became rather uninteresting, made me smile.) A Satire Bowl commercial that most of America and the world haven’t seen was “Rent-A-White-Man”, where black people can rent a white man to act on their behalf in post-racial American society without getting shot by the police.

Unless you’re living in a cave and watching Fox News TV, this is really funny. If you understand the irony of white privilege that is, which most white people can’t comprehend because they’re never judged by the color of their skin, have to think twice while walking down the street, or followed because someone think they’re up to no good. Being a native Californian with redneck parents from Idaho and living my entire life in the multicultural San Francisco Bay Area, I can appreciate—and laugh at—both sides of the racial divide.

And rent a white man is also a fantastic idea.

As a white man in my mid-forties with graying hair at the temples, I’m deeply concerned about being aged out of the tech industry that favors younger foreign workers over older American workers. That was obvious at a job from several years ago where Indians made up the majority of the workers and only vegan pizza got served at company events. I’m transitioning my career from general information technology (I.T.) into information security (InfoSec) that requires 10+ years of general I.T. experience to get into, a difficult hurdle for anyone from India or fresh of college to overcome. If I do get aged out of my current career, I can always rent myself out as a white man.

Rent a white man isn’t all satire. Chinese companies routinely rent white men in business suits to present their operations with American faces from a non-existent U.S. company and project an international aura over the local competition. Who knew that white privilege was a marketable skill?

Riding The Hotel 22 Bus

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When I started my new tech job six months ago, I initially took the 522 from San Jose to Palo Alto that ran the same route as the 22 and makes 75% fewer stops to get across the valley faster. This portion of my two-hour trip each way to work took 45 minute. As the weather got colder, the presence—and the overwhelming smell—of the homeless became more prevalent. Although I knew that the homeless rode the 22 around the clock, I didn’t know it had the nickname of “Hotel 22” until I read The New York Times op-ed piece by Elizabeth Lo on her new documentary by the same name.

Silicon Valley has three different kinds of buses that get workers from the outlying areas of the San Francisco Bay Area to their jobs in Silicon Valley, the Peninsula, Oakland or San Francisco. I’ve ridden on all three buses over the last 15 years as a computer technician in Silicon Valley.

Local buses crisscross the county to connect people from their homes to the major transit centers and thoroughfares for local companies. Minimum wage workers, techies and homeless people all mingled together, the 22 being the most obvious example. A monthly bus pass for Santa Clara County is $70 USD.

Commuter buses connect major transit centers to job-concentrated areas that are typically inaccessible without a vehicle (i.e., no sidewalks back to civilization). Some commuter and express buses are WiFi-enabled to allow Internet access via cellphone and tablets. You’re less likely to find minimum wage workers and the homeless on these buses, as the fastest routes are twice as expensive. A monthly express bus pass in Santa Clara County cost $140 USD.

Tech buses stop at major transit centers and thoroughfares to take them directly to each campus building. These luxury buses features faster WiFi connections, comfortable seats and sometimes a restroom. Access restricted to workers with company badges. Free for full-time employees, and, depending on the company, a nominal fee for contractors. No minimum wage workers or homeless allowed on these buses. These buses made the news when protesters in San Francisco and Oakland rioted against Google buses in 2013.

After riding the 522 for two months, I switched to an express bus that cut my overall commute to an hour each way. I drove the 280/85 freeway route to Mountain View for many years, suffering 45 minutes in the morning and 90 minutes in the evening. Driving beyond the 280/85 interchange to Page Mill Road in Palo Alto is much worse. I’m happy to pay someone else to drive while I read an ebook, listen to an audio book or take a snooze. Yes, like many of my fellow techies, I don’t miss dealing with the homeless or their overwhelming smell.

Some people get outraged that Silicon Valley, being richest society in America, can’t take care of the homeless. As I pointed out in the comment on The New York Times website, Californians love to vote on initiatives and propositions that decrease their taxes and increase their services. This is true for most Americans. Everyone wants services; no one wants to pay for it. Until that change, nothing else will change. Something to look forward to as baby boomers retire and the workforce shrinks in the next quarter-century.

Finding California Second Chance Lotto Scratchers

CA Scratchers 2nd Chance HeroI picked up many discarded California lotto scratchers in the parking lots of shopping centers around my neighborhood following the Great Recession. Someone bought a scratcher, went back to their car, discovered that it wasn’t a winner, and tossed it out window. These people don’t know that discarded scratchers are eligible for a second chance drawing on the Internet. I found 500+ scratchers, entered the numbers, and never won anything during a two-year period. And then the scratchers disappeared in recent years. As I take public transit to my new job after being out of work for eight months, I’m finding scratchers again at the bus stops and parking lots.

When my father and I played of scratchers, we could always count on at least one winning ticket for every $5 USD spent. (The holiday-themed scratchers were the most generous and frequently sold out of all the scratchers.) The most my father ever won was $500 USD, and I won $20 USD from time to time. We almost always break even when playing, seeing how long we can play multiple scratchers after getting back our five bucks. One time I played 22 scratchers in a row as I kept getting free ticket winners.

From what I read elsewhere, scratchers are less generous than before and less worthwhile to play. That could explain the dearth of scratchers in the parking lots. I’ve seen people entering a huge stack of scratchers into their laptop at the Starbucks cafe inside Safeway. Like people who collect bottles and cans from garbage cans and dumpsters before dawn, perhaps these people roam the parking lot to collect scratchers.

As for the second chance drawing, it doesn’t cost anything to play except for a few minutes to enter the numbers. Sometimes the website refuses to accept the number because the scratcher is a winner. One time my father gave me a poker-themed scratcher that was a winner, but we couldn’t figure out why it was a winner. The winning poker hand was quite obscure. I got a buck back when I turned it in at Safeway. If I couldn’t win a second chance drawing after entering 500+ scratchers, perhaps no one else can either.

Does finding scratchers in the parking lot indicate that people are now confident in the economy?

I don’t know. I’m not going to rush out to play scratchers again. Since I had four jobs in the last four years, and unemployed for three years out of the last six years, I haven’t financially recovered from the Great Recession. I’m reluctant to spare five bucks for scratchers. I have no problems in picking up someone else’s discarded scratchers to enter the second chance drawing and removing litter from the environment.

President Obama At Wal-Mart

Presidential Obama @ Mountain View WalmartPresident Obama landed in Silicon Valley to do the usual political fundraising to shake money loose from the movers and shakers, and visit the Wal-Mart Store in Mountain View to promote energy efficiency. Visiting Wal-Mart surprised me. Having visited that particular location after a job interview several weeks ago, the floor was dirty, the shelves were in disarray, and the lighting was terrible. Looking at the pictures taken at the presidential event, the store was clean, neat and well-lit.

Perhaps the president can visit this Wal-Mart more often?

Although rolling out solar panels at all its stores is commendable, Wal-Mart isn’t exactly the poster child of a responsible corporate citizen.

Wal-Mart pays their employees minimum wage and let them to work just enough hours per week to qualify for food stamps, forcing taxpayers to subsidize Wal-Mart’s high profits. And it’s perfectly legal under existing laws. According to one study (download the PDF here) by Demos, Wal-Mart could easily pay employees a higher wage by using the money set aside for their annual stock buyback program and save taxpayers a bundle.

Wal-Mart’s executives don’t play by the same rules as their minimum wage employees. When growth for fiscal year 2014 fell to 1.6% and missed the incentive compensation threshold at 1.8%, no one told the executives, “Better luck next year.” That would be unfair! Wal-Mart “re-adjusted” the numbers to award millions of dollars to their executives for having a lousy year.

Did I ever mentioned that I got laid off from last my job because the Fortune 500 CEO laid off 10% of the work force and gave himself a raise for having a lousy fiscal year?

If Wal-Mart ever put employees above profit (something that Costco has done successfully for many years), Wall Street would scream bloody murder. Maximizing profits at someone else’s expense is known as the modern “free market” system: privatizing profits and socializing losses. God forbid if corporations and executives bear the consequences of their actions in a true capitalist system.

Target Closed On Easter Day

Target Store LogoOn Easter Day I went over to Target on Coleman Avenue in San Jose. The first thing I noticed that the parking lot was empty, which made for a strange contrast to the full parking lots in the shopping center. Three rows of red shopping carts barricaded the front doors, as if to prevent a gang of shoplifters−or the zombie apocalypse−from crashing through. The same company that required workers to cut short their holiday to open the stores on Thanksgiving Day, and later let hackers stole 40 million credit card numbers, wasn’t open on Easter Day.

A quick Internet search revealed that Target had a 50-50 chance of being open for Easter. What prompted Target to give their employees a day off on a major religious holiday?

I would like to say that Target turned over a new leaf after the disasters with Thanksgiving Day and the data breach, and decided to put employees and customers first over profits. Uh, no. Let’s be real: Target is no Costco (i.e., closes on major holidays, pays their employees a living wage, and provide excellent customer service). Target is very much a Wall Street corporation, where increasing shareholder value at the expense of employees and customers is a paramount priority.

An alternative explanation is that Target as a “corporate person” got religion. With the Hobby Lobby lawsuit at the Supreme Court trying to define the corporate entity as a “person” with free speech rights (i.e., spending unlimited money on political campaigns) and moral consciousness (i.e., denying female employees access to contraception under health insurance policies), some companies will get right with God to become Christians and observe all the religious holidays. I doubt these “born again” companies will be less hypocritical than before.

Anyway, I went over to Safeway to pick up what I needed for this shopping trip.

A Modern Day Scrooge McDuck Mocks The Holocaust

Scrooge McDuckIf you have to mention Nazi Germany while making an argument, you pretty much lost the argument and any legitimacy to make that argument. A prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist billionaire, Tom Perkins, wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal that compared the one percent rich in the United States to the 30,000 Jews who sent to the concentration camps on Kristallnacht in November 1938, which marked the beginning of the Holocaust that killed six million Jews.

Obviously, this modern day Scrooge McDuck has been watching too many conspiracy theories on Fox News TV.

I haven’t heard of any reports that San Francisco progressives are rounding up the one percent rich, destroying their businesses and marching them off to the concentration camps. The broken windows of luxury car dealerships during the Occupy Wall Street protests in Oakland a few years ago and the recent protests against commuter buses for tech workers in San Francisco doesn’t make a “war on the rich” conspiracy.

The one percent rich are feeling insecure because they have been too successful in manipulating public policy and the economy to their advantage over the last 25 years. With a new Gilded Age within reach, the pendulum is starting to swing back towards the 99% who are still suffering from the Great Recession. A FDR-style revival in greatness could undermine everything that the one percent rich has done.

As the trader in the opening scene of “The Wolf of Wall Street” said (paraphrasing): “Wall Street doesn’t make anything, doesn’t build anything, and moves money from the client’s pocket into their own.”

Rather than growing the economic pie for society at large to benefit, the one percent rich are slicing-and-dicing an ever smaller economic pie for their benefit. Americans don’t begrudge someone for being rich as long as the playing field isn’t tilted against them. Unfortunately, economic inequality has become a serious problem. You’re either very poor (i.e., the takers) or very rich (i.e., the makers) in this economy. If you’re in the shrinking middle class that is paying the most taxes to fund the welfare benefits for the very poor and the tax cuts for very rich, you’re seriously screwed and need to move up or down.

Making comparisons to Nazi Germany mocks the horrors of the Holocaust. With 1,000 Holocaust survivors dying each month, the few people who lived through the horrors will no longer be around to remind the world of what happened in the 1940’s. Israel is considering a bill to outlaw the usage of the word “Nazi” outside of educational references to prevent further mockery of the Holocaust. (Although I abhor censorship in any form as a writer, the word “Nazi” might be a special usage case that requires considerable care.) Most people today regard the Holocaust as ancient history, but the civil war in Syria has proven that Nazi-style death camps are still here in the 21st century.

No Funemployment For Spongebob Squarepants

Spongebob Squarepants Gets FiredSpongebob Squarepants gets fired because his boss figured out that he could make an extra nickel without him. Although his friend explains to him the benefits of “glorious unemployment,” Spongebob wants a new job and not a “funemployment” vacation (i.e., living off of unemployment benefits before looking for a new job). A self-sufficient view that transforms the environmental/gay/liberal-friendly sponge into a new conservative darling. With the economy still in the crapper, getting a new job sooner is more important for a different set of reasons.

Before the Great Recession in 2008, I would apply for unemployment benefits, post my resume on the job search websites, have three job interviews, and get a new job within six weeks. That happened three times over a five-year period. I never got stressed out from being laid off. My monthly expenses were modest and collapsible enough to live off of my unemployment benefits for a short while.

Despite following my previous unemployment routine after being laid off on Friday the 13th in February 2009, I didn’t get a new job within six weeks. The Great Recession was different. I was out of work for two years, underemployed for six months (i.e., working 20 hours a month), and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. After going through all that, I didn’t qualify for food stamps because I still made more money than someone working at Wal-Mart.

I had three jobs in the last three years since then. After my contract ended the first two times, I got a new job within three weeks and drew only one week of unemployment benefits. I’m hoping for a third time in a row. I don’t know if my unemployment benefit will be on my old claim ($293 per week) or a new claim ($456 per week). If I get a new claim, I can probably relax a bit and take my time in finding a new job during the holidays. If it’s my old claim, I’m screwed. I still haven’t financially recovered from the Great Recession.

After my last job officially declared a layoff of “permanent” employees, my coworkers bombard me with questions about being a contractor as they been with the company for five or more years. They all thought they could take a six-month vacation, look for a new job before exhausting their unemployment benefits, and get hired immediately. I warned them against doing that. I had several roommates who did that during a normal economy (i.e., between the Dot Com Bust in 2001 and the Great Recession in 2008), couldn’t find another tech job because their programming skills were obsolete, got cashier jobs at a drug store, and are still toiling at minimum wage jobs. My coworkers didn’t get laid off this time, but my contract came up for renewal and that was that for that job.

A Lousy Month To Look For A New Job

WTF KeyboardI knew October would become a lousy month at the end of September when my car died from a blown head gasket. The timing was bad. Since my last two non-writing tech jobs ended after nine months or so, and the company I worked for had announced layoffs for its full-time workers, I expected to lose my job. And, not surprisingly, I got my layoff notice the following Monday morning. If being without a car and out of the job wasn’t bad enough, the Republicans shut down the government.

The last two times I looked for work last year, I got a job within three weeks and collected one week of unemployment. Under “normal” circumstances (and nothing has been normal since the Great Recession started five years ago), I could have expected the same success with my current job search this time. But with the Republican shutdown casting a pall over the economy, I wasn’t certain that I could get a job that soon before I ran out of money. If the Republicans were successful in destroying the global economy by defaulting on the good faith and credit of the United States, it didn’t matter anyway.

With two weeks left on the job, I updated and posted my resume to the job search websites, sat back and waited for my cellphone to ring. It didn’t. During the Republican shutdown, no one was calling me back. I scanned the websites, submitted my resumes to interesting positions and continued to wait. Only after the Republicans backed off from the economic cliff, and President Barack Obama signed the continuing resolution into law, did my cellphone started ringing off the hook.

I immediately had two meet-and-greet interviews with local recruiters. They claim to have numerous jobs available, but they never do and were more interested in my interactions with other recruiters. I went to these meetings to dust off the cobwebs and figure out what I need to change from being out of the job market for nine months.

One recruiter suggested that I changed my chronological resume to a functional resume. Since I had so many contract jobs over the last few years, I could highlight the various job skills that I have accumulated over the years (i.e., quality assurance testing, PC refresh technician, network support, help desk/desktop support and data center technician). I spent a day rewriting my resume at work since all my responsibilities got transferred to someone else, uploaded the resume to the job search websites and more phone calls came in.

It’s difficult to look for work while still working. Now that I’m not working, I’m playing the waiting game with recruiters who have submitted my resumes to hiring managers. The clock is ticking down. If I don’t have a paycheck by the end of November, I won’t have rent for December and things will fall apart from there. After surviving two years of unemployment, six months of underemployment (i.e., working 20 hours per month), and filing Chapter Seven bankruptcy, I’m not sure if I can put up with surviving on the edge again.