Hey, billionaires

California’s ultrarich and the future of public education

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento-based freelance writer
Did you know that American tax dollars, funneled through the military-industrial complex, created the Internet? For more information, go to www.darpa.mil, search for “Mitch Waldrop” and find his report on Project Lincoln.

California’s budget deficit is front-page news. Less so is that 93 of the world’s 1,210 billionaires live in the state, according to Forbes magazine, about 8 percent of the global total.

The wealthiest Californian and No. 5 billionaire overall, globally speaking, is Larry Ellison, head of Oracle Corp., the software giant. He lives in Woodside, and is worth a cool $39.5 billion. That tidy sum is roughly two and a half times the amount of the $15.4 billion California budget deficit that flows from a deep jobs and tax-revenue crisis after the credit/housing crash and Wall Street bailout.

Two other billionaires from the Golden State on the recent Forbes list are search-engine titan Google co-owners Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Palo Alto and San Francisco, respectively. Page and Brin share the 24th spot on the Forbes list of world billionaires. Each man has a net worth of $19.8 billion. Their combined $39.6 billion surpasses Ellison’s riches. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, with a net worth of $13.5 billion, trails Ellison, Page and Brin.

The home base for this “billionaire boys club” in California is computer-friendly Silicon Valley, a place that sprouted to create the Internet thanks to the expenditure of our tax dollars, through the military-industrial complex (see column note). For California’s quartet of top billionaires, however, the return on this public investment is private.

Against the backdrop of this private gain, there is public pain. The state of California is slashing spending on public education. Recently, 20,000 school teachers in K-12 classrooms, mostly women and full or partial family breadwinners, have received layoff notices for 2011-2012.

The state’s community colleges, the California State University and University of California face a total of $1.4 billion in spending cuts so far. That means fewer working-class youth and adults will pay more for less higher education. This reliable path for upward mobility is at risk. Recall that prior to 1984, California’s no-fee policy accorded with the state’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education.

My policy proposal for billionaires and public education in California is simple. Simply increase taxes on the wealth of the Golden State’s 93 billionaires until incoming revenue matches outgoing expenses for state spending on education. Our billionaires can afford to pay higher taxes, since they can never spend all their money. It’s interesting to note that together, the top four California billionaires have a net worth of $92.6 billion—that’s roughly the same amount as the state’s general fund budget.

Something is seriously wrong when working-class Californians, students and teachers of all ages and backgrounds pay the price for a public-education system lacking tax revenue as less than 100 billionaires live large.

Public policy is not a force of nature, like gravity. We have the power, acting in unity, to demand new policy priorities of our lawmakers—ones that stop turning public investment into private profit and start taxing the ultrarich so that we can better support our beleaguered public-education system.