POLITICS
07/31/2014 05:55 pm ET | Updated Aug 01, 2014

Neel Kashkari Goes On Brief Poverty Tour In California Gubernatorial Race Stunt

Mario Tama via Getty Images

Back when former "TARP czar" Neel Kashkari was gripped with disillusionment over politics, he schlepped off to Nevada County, California, to build a shed in the woods so that he could sit alone, stewing in his own anomie. Now that Kashkari wants to jump back into politics, running against incumbent Jerry Brown in the 2014 California gubernatorial election, he's fiddling around with his living arrangements once again -- this time spending one week going undercover as a homeless person in Fresno, California, to answer the question, "Is California back?"

Naturally, seeking to experience what life may be like in the shoes of other people is a pretty laudable goal. Kashkari is certainly not the first person to have done so, and I imagine he won't be the last. If only this experience was happening outside a narrow imperative named, "I am down double-digits in the California governor's race and I need a 'game-changer' -- OH I GOT IT, I'LL GO CAMPING IN FRESNO." Then, we might actually be on to something. But if it's a campaign stunt we have to have, then it will have to do.

Kashkari lights out for the San Joaquin Valley with a change of clothes, $40 in his pocket, and a lot of fanciful notions as to how the working class economy works. He tells the camera that he's hoping that he'll find work quickly so that he can purchase food and obtain a cheap place to rent, seemingly of the belief that securing a job will lead to money changing hands during the one-week time frame of this experiment, as opposed to the "fill out some payroll paperwork and get a check on the ensuing eligible payday" to which most of us have become accustomed.

As Kashkari troops from place to place, seeking work and safe outdoor places to sleep, he practically begs you to wonder, "Why doesn't he just check Craigslist or something?" I mean, this guy needs ten people "ASAP" and is hiring "on the spot."

craigslist entry

You just get the sense that as hard as it may be to find a job in Fresno, Kashkari is making it more complicated than it needs to be. But there's a hidden problem that complicates Kashkari's mission to find a job even further, and that's the fact that the job he is seeking is "governor of California." And so, all of the experience he's collecting is largely going to be filtered to match the pre-existing premises of his campaign as opposed to having a wholly new life experience. (This is a dilemma for anti-poverty crusaders who do similar stunts, actually.) A further complication is that under its current governor, California's unemployment rate has done this:

california unemployment rate

Some things manage to get through the filter, of course. There's one moment where Kashkari's camera alights on someone who opines that the "recovery" seems to have primarily benefitted those at the top of the income hierarchy. This is true! As economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have discovered, the "difference between wealth held by the top 1 percent and the rest of us has climbed back up to levels not seen since the roaring 20s" and that "the bottom 99 percent may be poorer in absolute terms than they were before the housing bust."

So Kashkari could have obtained the answer to the question, "Is California back?" from the relative comforts of his shed. Of course, this might have caused some discomfort, as these facts reveal that wealth has flowed in the same direction as the bailouts over which Kashkari presided. The facts might also reveal that California got to the place it is now not because of the Brown administration's policies, but because of this massive economic calamity that happened in 2008 that sent millions of jobs to employment heaven.

Ultimately, there is only a glancing connection between the difficulty of finding a job in Fresno in the manner Kashkari sets out to find one, and the matter of getting California "back." Just because you have a job doesn't mean you are back, and as unemployment rates drop, more attention should be given to the sorts of jobs to which people are returning. (Maybe for his next trick, Kashkari can spend a week working in an Amazon fulfillment center.)

Dave Weigel puts it well:

Well, okay. But are we talking about poverty or unemployment? People with jobs receive food stamps; people with jobs fall below the poverty line. Millions of them. Kashkari's site promotes the poverty video by linking to his jobs plan, which repeatedly criticizes Brown for the companies that have moved manufacturing from California to Texas -- which, well, has a higher poverty rate than California. Kashkari wants legal fracking in California, which would create jobs, but he wants (as he frequently says on the trail) to kill a planned high speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles. How many jobs would the rail line create? How could people in Fresno make use of it? Forget about it -- it's a "crazy train," according to Kashkari.

There's a lot more to "making it" than can be learned from a week of poverty tourism. There are people in California, right now, with full-time jobs, who are being priced out of living in the places served by those jobs. Some of those people are finding themselves running afoul of laws that actually criminalize being so displaced. (Kashkari was smart to not try this homeless act in Palo Alto, where sitting or lying down on the sidewalk has been illegal since 1997, and where a recent law made it illegal to dwell in a car.) In California, it's not uncommon for skilled workers, some even from the tech sector, to be living on the streets -- even while holding down a job.

At any rate, Kashkari's excursion into the land of want has garnered him a considerable amount of attention. That, and his gubernatorial run, should provide a nice boost to his speaker's fee.

READ MORE
Neel Kashkari and the Ghost of Tom Joad [Slate]

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

ALSO ON HUFFPOST:

2014 Gubernatorial Challengers
Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?

CONVERSATIONS