When you write about initiatives, you spend a lot of time hearing from and about rich people. And the main message is that they are brilliant people who have put together groundbreaking proposals that no one else would have the courage (and the scratch) to back.
Usually, I hold my tongue. Being in the nonprofit journalism business these days requires not needlessly offending rich people. But in this season of initiatives that are on the ballot purely because rich people like them, I must confess what I’m often thinking:
“If said rich initiative sponsor is so smart, why is he or she spending millions of perfectly good dollars on a ballot initiative?”
Here’s a challenge for you.
Name a rich person who sponsored a ballot initiative and was better off for it.
I could make a case for one such person –Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Prop 49 campaign. And even then, having the opportunity to govern an ungovernable state, at great personal cost to himself and his family, is not all that great a prize. One could also make an argument for Charlie Munger, backer of redistricting reform, though that reform has changed so little that it’s hard to call it a feather in his cap.
But more often than not, the super-wealthy initiative player merely ends up poorer (and in many cases sees an idea go nowhere). Just in recent years, you could put Steve Bing, Steve Poizner, and Boone Pickens on this list.
This year brings Molly Munger and Tom Steyer, sponsors of tax-hike ballot measures. Both of them are very smart, by all accounts. But not smart enough to avoid blowing millions of dollars of their own money – at least $20 million each – on ballot initiatives that are more likely to lose than to win. And even if they win, the benefits to their preferred cause are far from certain. Indeed, many initiatives make things worse for their sponsors. (You could ask the state’s redevelopment agencies, sponsors of Prop 22, about this, but there are no more redevelopment associations, because of Prop 22).
Of course, there is something reassuring about watching all these rich people waste their money on ballot initiatives. They may have more money than the rest of us, but they aren’t any wiser.