N.Y.-D.C. status quo is shaken by moguls.com

June 22, 1999|By Michael Kinsley

THE FACT that the Internet will make life better for all humankind has long been noted, even on the East Coast. But what seems to have struck the East Coast only recently is that the Internet is making a smaller subset of all humankind -- people who start Internet-related companies or join them before they go public -- incredibly wealthy.

The New York Times reported as much on its front page recently, so you know it's probably true.

Out here in cyberland, people have been aware of this fact for several years. Indeed we have talked of little else since about September 1996, which is the last time anyone mentioned a book except in the context of Amazon.com.

The basic anecdote -- variations on "When I knew him in college he was stoned all the time . . . two years ago he was living in a corrugated box on his ex-wife's compost pile [we all actually pitched in to buy him a new futon!] . . . then last week they had their IPO, and now he's worth $350 million" -- declined long ago from fresh conversational gambit through staple to cliche.

So what's new? Money has always been a fraught topic. And envy didn't just become a deadly sin when its existence was acknowledged by the New York Times. Nevertheless, the arrival of Internet envy on the Washington-New York buzz axis is new in several ways.

Washington types used to be surprisingly immune to envy of other people simply for being richer. A theory long propounded by Walter Shapiro, a USA Today political columnist and Slate contributor, is that the financial heights of Washington are occupied by high-salaried lawyers and lobbyists, not by real accumulated or inherited wealth as in New York.

More important, of course, Washington has -- or had -- a social status ranking independent of money. It's a place where puzzled gazillionaires can find themselves snubbed at dinner parties by deputy assistant Cabinet secretaries and patronized by minor TV talking heads.

Career decisions

Even in New York, where money matters more, there are (unlike in Washington) strong independent subcultures in which a journalist or college professor or unemployed actor can take comfort in an independent value system. They could have been bankers or management consultants but chose not to be. And the people at the top of those heaps, earning plenty to live comfortably, honestly wouldn't trade being, say, curator of dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History for being just another multimillionaire investment banker.

On most days.

So what has changed? One element, obviously, is the size of these Internet fortunes. Hundreds of millions.

As syndicated columnist Matt Miller recently pointed out, with numbers like this surging across the Times business section, even investment bankers "feel like wage slaves at $10 million a year." (And, poor souls, these investment bankers generally cannot find comfort in an independent value system.)

Meanwhile, in Washington, where even New York-style fortunes are rare, it seems that the Northern Virginia-based America Online alone has created a vast new social stratum of megamillionaires one has never heard of. Gives one pause.

Second, there's the speed. It's one thing to console yourself that at least you didn't have to spend 30 years doing a job you would hate. That trick is a bit harder when you read that someone (inevitably, someone with the same name as that bozo down the hall sophomore year . . . but it can't be . . . look, here's his picture . . . oh no) joined some nothing of a company, sat there through the IPO and cashed out, all in a couple of years. How awful can a job be?

Answer: maybe not so awful at all. In fact, maybe it's remarkably similar to the job you're doing now. A third startling difference about Internet IPO wealth is that some of it is raining down on journalists!

Writing journalists, no less, at places like Amazon and TheStreet and iVillage (dot-com, dot-com, dot-com). This is something truly new in the history of the known universe.

Journalists have joined software engineers and business executives in peddling the other basic Internet envy anecdote: variations on, "Oh yeah, they offered me the top job at Somedamnedsite.com -- begged me to take it, offered me 75 percent of the equity plus options for another 75 -- but I turned it down."

Even during the first few years of Internet frenzy, Internet envy was not widespread in the N.Y.-D.C. buzzworld because the whole thing seemed to be happening on another planet -- to people one not only didn't know, but also could scarcely imagine. Only very recently have lottery winners started popping up in one's own neighborhood.

Internet envy

The rules have indeed changed. But they're always changing, in a couple of ways. Some changes in personal values are simply part of growing older. Then there are shifts in the values of the general culture. To oversimplify: In high school the jocks are on top, but the smart kids tend to win in adult life.

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