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January 22, 2014 12:33 PM Why Does a Governor Want Expensive Status Symbols?

By Mark Kleiman

I won’t pretend to be sad about the indictment of former VA Governor Bob McDonnell on corruption charges. If I have any compassion to spare, I’ll use it on the children of poor families in Virginia denied medical coverage by McDonnell’s refusal to accept Federal money to expand Medicaid. I hope McDonnell and Chris Christie share a prison cell and come out dedicated advocates for correctional reform.

But there’s one deeply, deeply twisted element to the story that ought to worry all of us. McDonnell was the Governor of Virginia, the successor of Jefferson. And he wanted a Rolex watch.

Now, I can understand a salesman who wants a Rolex to show that he’s a successful salesman. Money is how salespeople keep score, and without expensive wristwatches and suchlike how is anyone going to be able to tell a successful salesman from a wannabee? But if you’re the #$!@ing Governor of Virginia, what on earth do you need a Rolex for? As a status symbol? Isn’t t he title “Governor” pretty good status indicator?

One of the many problems that flows from increasing inequality of income and wealth is that the standards of the rich become the ruling standards. Mrs. McDonnell obviously felt that she would be disgraced if she appeared at her husband’s inaugural ball in the sort of dress an honest public servant’s wife could afford, when all the fundraisers’ wives - to say nothing of the female fundraisers - would be wearing a large fraction of the median annual household income. Does that excuse her committing extortion to get an Oscar de la Renta dress? Of course not. But it testifies to a corruption of manners that goes far deeper than corruption in office.

The extreme wealth of the rich is as great a public menace as the poverty of the poor, and great wealth is a greater problem than high income. Some of the way that money is made is destructive, and much of the way it is spent is even more destructive.

It would help if, at official functions such as inaugurations, our elected leaders and their families discouraged conspicuous waste among their guests and refrained from it themselves.

My $15 wristwatch from Target keeps excellent time, and - to my eye - looks pretty damned elegant.

But if I were a surgeon or an investment banker, I couldn’t afford to wear it. That, I submit, is a problem. And one part of the solution is for the President of the United States to wear, and let it be known that he wears, a cheap wristwatch. Not as important as restoring the estate tax, of course, but it’s a start, and it could be done tomorrow.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.

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