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Living in a Bubble

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America's most wealthy struggle mightily to ignore new reality.

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I grew up in a bubble.

My hometown, once a typical middle-class suburban city not unlike countless others around the country, got swept up in Silicon Valley's tech boom, altering the fortunes of its residents forever.

My parents didn't come from money, nor did they make tech-bubble millions. They were, and are, simple folks who worked hard, saved their money and shied away from extravagance. They just happened to choose to put down roots in a town that, unbeknownst to them, was about to enjoy a period of unprecedented prosperity.

I go back home these days and barely recognize my childhood stomping grounds. A 2500-square-foot, 4-bedroom, 2-bath house is now considered a tear-down; formerly quaint shops and restaurants are now highbrow boutiques and French bistros.

Most residents, after 3 decades of kindly financial markets and vast fortunes that virtually fell from the sky, still live in that bubble. In the words of a local wealth manager, "[This area] mints more millionaires in a year than any other 20-mile radius in the world."

It's this attitude, that somehow attaining wealth and collecting vast sums of cash puts a person -- or a community -- above his neighbors, that saddens me when I return home. What used to be a humble community of families and creative entrepreneurs has transformed into endless rounds of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.

The local public schools even go so far as to publish monthly newsletters with each parent's donations itemized in the back pages, as if to shame the less generous with the lavish gifts of their neighbors.

Insulated by multi-million dollar suburban estates, upscale organic grocery stores, and a great deal of money, the lives of the new rich had never been touched by the struggling masses.

Until now.

But even after 18 months of turmoil on Wall Street, their travails exist mostly on paper: How can one empathize with the loss of a home, when all you've lost is a couple zeroes from the end of your net worth?

This isn't quite fair, of course. Many of our parents, baby boomers headed for retirement, are active philanthropists, and spend the great majority of their time giving back to a community that has given them so much. Some of the most dynamic charitable organizations and international development groups were founded by this region's brightest minds.

They arrived in the Bay Area before debt and excess became mainstream; when simplicity, humility and respect were still valued traits.
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