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The Stately Mansions of Piedmont and the Wealth Gap

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The small city of Piedmont is one of the richest in the Bay Area. The median household income is $212,000 a year. More than half the adult population earns over $200,000 annually. Piedmont sold the first $1 million home in the East Bay years ago, although today, a million bucks won’t buy you much. Zillow reports that current home listings in the 1.7 square mile city range from $1.4 million to $6.2 million. Seven of the ten most expensive Alameda County home sales in 2016 were in Piedmont.

I can walk to Piedmont from my home, in the Adams Point section of Oakland, in ten minutes, and I frequently do, for my daily stroll. I enjoy wandering its quiet, hilly streets, with their big trees, huge homes with immaculate grounds and gardens that bloom all year. Piedmont is a world apart from Oakland, even though the city of 10,809 is entirely surrounded by Oakland. Piedmont was recognized by California as a city in 1907, because even then its residents wanted to dissociate themselves from the bigger, dirtier, poorer city around it. They still do.

It’s funny: Piedmont, as I said, is a ten-minute walk from my home, but if I walk ten minutes in any other direction, I come across squalid neighborhoods of run-down homes, brownfields of homeless encampments and trash-lined gutters. There is no trash in Piedmont. It’s as manicured as any rich suburb in the country. When I walk its avenues, I admire the stately mansions, which have been built in all styles, from Georgian and Spanish Colonial to Arts & Crafts to ultra-modern.

Piedmont is Pacific Heights in the suburbs, and with better weather. Porsches and Lamborghinis line the driveways and curbs; the hoi polloi drive BMWs and Mercedes. The population is, as Tom Wolfe wrote of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, radical chic: Lots of pictures of Breonna Taylor, “Say their names” signs, BLM posters, and of course Biden front yard placards, although I do wonder how many of the Piedmontese would be embarrassed to put out a Trump sign. I have to assume the BLM signs at least are sincere. When I walk through downtown Oakland and they’re in every store window, I get the suspicion some are for insurance, to keep thugs from smashing their windows during the next riot, which is never far off. But the Piedmontese needn’t worry about riots in their bucolic streets. The local polizia, with the mutual aid of the Alameda County Sheriffs Department, simply wouldn’t allow it.

I myself could never afford to live in Piedmont, and I suppose there’s some envy on my part, gazing at those stately mansions. It’s clean and refreshing to get out of the inner city when I stroll there, but I always know that I’m going to have to return to Adams Point, where a growing homeless camp is a block away. If there are any encampments in Piedmont, I’ve never seen them, and I rather doubt that there are. In my head, as I walk though Piedmont, I can’t help but think about the wealth gap in America. We read about how foreign cities like Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and Nairobi are infamous for having privileged neighborhoods jeek-by-jowl with some of the poorest slums on earth, but we seldom think of U.S. cities in that context. We should.

I’m not a reflexive “raise taxes” person. I believe Americans who work hard and achieve success should be able to hold onto their gains. We’re all created morally equal, but not physically or intellectually equal. I recognize that most rich people got what they have through their own efforts, and that the inverse of that is true: many poor people failed to work hard and take advantage of the American Dream, which is why they’re poor. I recognize that there are structural inequities in America, and we have to identify them and rectify them. We’re doing that as a nation, although I also recognize that some people think we’re not doing it fast enough. What is “fast enough” anyway?

So I don’t resent the good burghers of Piedmont. Still, this begs the question of what is the right, fair way to bridge the wealth gap. I’m no Communist; I don’t believe in seizing rich peoples’ wealth and redistributing it to everyone else. At the same time, I’m no royalist. Rich people have an obligation to share the wealth, especially when the wealth gap in America is so big. What is the just, ethical proportion of their wealth that should be shared?

The California State Legislature—which is to say, Democrats in our heavily Blue state—in July passed a measure that would raise taxes on the state’s richest people from the current 13.3% rate to 54% for the uber-rich, raising an estimated $6 billion a year that could go to schools and other services for the poor and struggling middle classes.

That’s not a huge amount of money in a state with a $202 billion dollar budget, and it’s hard to argue that the extra money isn’t needed. But already the anti-tax forces are fighting back. Their main argument is that “top earners could more easily leave the state and work in places with no income tax, like Nevada and Texas.” And I suppose there will be some rich people who emigrate if the tax proposal actually happens. I don’t want to see that, and I don’t want corporations to leave California for Nevada and Texas, which is already happening. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that taxing the rich (and the richest corporations) is the right thing to do. The proof, for me, is in those leafy Piedmont streets. Does the owner of that three-story Palladian mansion really need a new Porsche Taycan 4S? Could he part with another $35,000 a year if he knew the money was going to inner-city preschools, or forest firefighting, or pediatric healthcare for poor kids? If he says he doesn’t want to pay higher taxes, and would rather move to another state than to share the wealth, what does it say about him and about his moral or religious beliefs? Not much, if you ask me.

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