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Davis, California

Friday, May 17, 2024

Column: Mo money mo problems

A very prominent feature of the California gubernatorial race has been money, and not in the usual sense of campaign fundraising and expenditures. As in, who has it – lots of it.

Worth $1.3 billion according to Forbes magazine, Meg Whitman gets hit often as “billionaire Meg Whitman” or “Wall Street Whitman” before campaign spokesmen and activists retire back into their offices and union meetings to discuss the next round of attacks. It is a clear strategy from the official and unofficial Jerry Brown teams to paint Whitman as too wealthy, too greedy and totally, like, not someone you’d want to play beer pong with.

In the same line of thinking, Brown himself has savaged Whitman for wanting to eliminate California’s capital gains taxes and favoring her rich buddies at the cost of decent Californians. Because as we all know, rich people don’t pull their weight around here.

Except that breaks down upon closer inspection. At 10 percent for the highest bracket, our state has some of the highest income tax rates in the nation. Less than one half of 1 percent of Californians – around 144,000 people out of 37 million – pay almost half the state’s income taxes. There are a tremendous number of services we enjoy that are heavily funded by the very successful in life, and every time we chase one of these folks out of the state with high taxes, several people of more average income suffer.

A war against the wealthy can quickly turn into a war against wealth. But that doesn’t stop some for calling on the rich to pay “their fair share.”

Funny how some people claim it’s only “fair” for others to pay a helluva lot more than them in taxes. It’s also only “fair” for smarter people in my group projects to do more work than me. Hey, how could you oppose what’s fair?

Our society, and particularly our youth, has something of a hostility to the rich that makes it much easier to target them for “revenue enhancements.” The typical response to challenging this notion is that our country is “obsessed with money” and this justifies heavy taxation.

We are all too often obsessed with money, as everything from our national work ethic to the recent musical hit “Billionaire” featuring Bruno Mars indicates. But we are aware of this preoccupation and rarely shy from attacking greed or selfishness in the public arena.

It’s common for politicians to drone on about their middle-class or poor upbringings over a burger at a truck stop. It’s very rare for them to highlight their taste for fine wines and caviar on their shiny new yacht. To the extent that we are a plutocratic society, we self-criticize more often than an insecure Chris Farley character on a Saturday Night Live talk show.

But it’s not healthy for us to spend so much time focusing on Whitman’s wealth in this campaign. Our state is falling apart faster than a ’91 Ford Taurus sold at auction, but we just can’t talk enough about the personal finances of our gubernatorial candidates.

Just why exactly is “billionaire Meg Whitman” an insult? As someone who has passed himself off as a campaign consultant from time to time, I can tell you that economy of words is crucial in framing a message. Why then have so many Democratic experts decided to call attention to how many zeroes Whitman’s got in her bank account? What does that messaging decision say about our own antagonisms toward the richer among us? Even the record numbers of her own dollars she’s dropped into the race don’t matter to me. What, like other campaigns are liberated from the corrupting influence of money and special interests? Please.

I am no fan of the opulent, but I am no enemy either. If another person makes a lot of money, good for them, but I’m more concerned with how to fix the state and country I love. And I don’t think the stubborn sale of class warfare is the way out.

It’s only fair that you email ROB OLSON at rwolson@ucdavis.edu.


  1. Two thoughts.

    One is that Meg’s decision to spend more than $100 million on her campaign is effectively a “mini-stimulus” for California,

    The other is that, regardless of your political preference, it’s great to see two women who have succeeded in business and can serve as role models.


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