Money Porn

Welcome to the Sweepstakes Era. Wanna Play?

The fluffers of money porn-the ones that keep the stars rising—are journalists. The swoon is understandable. Silicon Valley journalists are standing in the middle of what venture-capitalist John Doerr has famously called "the largest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet." According to the San Jose Mercury News ,one in nine people in Santa Clara County are millionaires. It's hard not to get disoriented. "Getting drawn into the mystic appeal of it is a real risk," says former trade journalist Steve Baldwin, whose new book, Netslaves ,celebrates the bottom feeders of the Valley. "You're making $35,000, you're slaving away, and you meet these people who seem larger than life." (The rare exceptions to this, like Po Bronson, are only reluctantly journalists. Bronson began as a fiction writer.)

And money porn is just so easy to do—wealth is more public than it's ever been. With hundreds of entrepreneurs taking companies to market, their net worth is now easily tracked via documents at the Securities and Exchange Commission and NASDAQ. At the end of every trading day, CNBC shows exactly how Bill Gates's stock has performed, if only because they can. "It's tremendously voyeuristic," says Doug Henwood, editor of the Left Business Journal. "For people who don't have money, everybody looks like they're getting rich. So I'm a chump [for not investing]. I think there must be something wrong with me."

This is precisely where money porn has improved on XXX. Before, there was no way to jump from one side of the screen to the other. Now, there's iWon.com, which debuted last month, supported by hefty investment from CBS. iWon is giving away $1 million a month, $10,000 a day, $10 million on Tax Day 2000. You don't even have to answer softball questions; all you have to do is click. Emillion- mania.com, unveiled by online stock-trading company Etrade, lets visitors bet where the market will end up on December 31—guess correctly and a million is yours. By comparison, treeloot.com's five-digit payout is just a leaf on the money tree. The motto of this milieu has become "your chance to win." If money porn is the genre, scoring a sweepstakes is the shudder, the spasm, the orgasm.

The delusion has reached dramatic proportions. One half of Americans have less than $1000 in net financial assets—to win that much on Millionaire ,you'd need to answer just one simple question like "What color is Big Bird?" The majority of American households, with incomes under $35,000 (the national average is $30,000), think they've got a better chance of building their nest egg by winning the lottery or a sweepstakes than by saving their money. As a recent study shows, Americans grossly underestimate the growth of savings over time. When they were asked how much $50 invested a week for 40 years would add up to (at a hypothetical, if generous, 9 percent return), the median response was $239,400. The real amount would be over a million dollars.

But in the sweepstakes era, it's a waste of time to do the math. The way to earn is to bet on double-zero. The math might be irrelevant anyway, since the numbers don't stay stable. Internet entrepreneurs worth a billion one week (like Priceline's Jay Walker) might be worth half that the next. Even in the greatest boom in history, the value of these companies fluctuates wildly and many are trading below their opening price.

So the arms eventually drop to the sides. The screaming stops. But the action will start up again soon enough. There's no beginning, middle, or end in porn, as Susan Sontag wrote in her risky (if not risqué) essay "The Pornographic Imagination"—just an "on and on." There's always another IPO, another Daniel. The sex is so cheap, why not play? Again and again.

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