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How a former Goldman banker became homeless
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How a former Goldman banker became homeless

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How a former Goldman banker became homeless

Neel Kashkari is not a household name for most Americans, probably not for most Californians either.

But in his mercurial career, he has probably had more influence on our lives than we’re aware.

Between 2006 and 2009, Kashkari was an aide and assistant U.S. Treasury secretary under Henry Paulson, his former boss at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. GS -0.08% Kashkari was chiefly responsible for running the Troubled Asset Relief Program. That’s better known as TARP, the $700 billion bank-bailout program.

Even if you don’t know what TARP is, you know about the popularity of bank bailouts.

So you may find it surprising that the 41-year-old Kashkari is now the Republican nominee to unseat popular Gov. Jerry Brown in this fall’s election in California.

That either makes him the unluckiest guy in California or a glutton for punishment. Probably both.

I don’t want to say Kashkari doesn’t have a chance, but given the Golden State’s rising economic fortunes, its budget surplus and Brown’s formidable political machine, a Republican former Wall Street banker has about the same chance as a homeowner did of getting a mortgage-payment reduction under Kashkari’s program.

That said, Kashkari is giving it a try — with all of the sensitivity you’d expect from a former Goldman Sachs banker.

To show his concern, and perhaps, to gain a better understanding for the impoverished, Kashkari spent a week at the end of July “homeless” on the streets of Fresno. He boarded a bus, brought a toothbrush and with $40 in his pocket, tried to find a job. He was just like any other homeless person with a campaign camera crew following him. He slept on the streets and said he couldn’t even find a “help wanted” sign.

Then, it was revealed that Kashkari actually did pretty well during his homeless-in-Fresno experience. His campaign coffers more than tripled to $430,000. He also got a $27,000 check from Paulson.

Not bad for a week’s work, or lack of it.

Democrats seized on Kashkari’s Fresno fact-finding mission as evidence that the Republican doesn’t have a plan for California. After all, what exactly was Kashkari’s point? That ex-Treasury officials don’t make good baristas? That the state needs a lower, or higher minimum wage? Job training programs are inadequate? That Fresno sucks?

As you might expect, the media enjoyed Kashkari’s summer vacation. Los Angeles Times commentator Ted Rall praised Kashkari for shedding light on California poverty but wondered, “Why was a toothbrush essential, but not floss? Was there toothpaste, and if not, why not, and if so, why wasn’t it mentioned? How about mouthwash?”

Kashkari, writing about the experience in The Wall Street Journal, said California politicians “wilfully ignore” those

“California’s record poverty is man-made: overregulation and overtaxation that drive jobs out of state, failing schools that don’t prepare students for the skilled work force, and misguided water policies that prevent us from saving surplus water in wet years to prepare for our inevitable droughts,” he wrote.

Which is a pretty thoughtful analysis for a guy who forgot mouthwash.

There is some irony to the Kashkari campaign, and no, it’s not that a former Goldman banker and Treasury official spent a week pretending to be homeless. Kashkari’s campaign war chest is dismally low. As the San Jose Mercury News noted, at this point in the campaign Meg Whitman had sunk $91 million of her personal ebay EBAY +0.02% fortune into her 2010 bid to defeat Brown. Kashkari has spent $2.1 million of his own money, so far. Brown has raised $20 million.

That’s one of Kashkari's disadvantages.

Another one is his record. As the chief administrator of the government’s biggest bank bailout program, Kashkari needs to answer some questions. For instance, why did a program that was aimed at stabilizing banks and encourage lending fail at the latter ? Why did banks use the funds to pay down debt and acquire other banks?

Kashkari also needs to address the fact that many of TARP’s critics were Republicans. A Illinois Republican congressman, Don Manzullo, asked him to step down. Another, Florida Republican Rep. Virginia Brown-Waite, told Kashkari that TARP was a “bait-and-switch.”

Those criticisms underscore the disconnect between the Treasury Department of Kashkari, Paulson and, later, Timothy Geithner and the taxpayers who saved the banking status quo but failed to receive the benefits.

California was one of four states hit hardest by the mortgage crisis. Unemployment soared to 12.3% in May 2010 from 5.5% in 2006 — Kashkari’s first year at Treasury. Of the 100 zip codes hardest hit with foreclosures, 38 were in California, according to RealtyTrac. And the irony is that under Brown, it has led in the recovery ranking among the states with the strongest job growth and seeing the biggest improvement in housing prices.

Perhaps Kashkari believes his own record is water under the bridge. And that’s fine. It can be. But as a candidate for the state’s most powerful office, Kashkari has made sleeping under the bridge a central issue.

Kashkari has made a point of how hard it is to get out from under the bridge. He seems oblivious as to how he got there in the first place.

How a former Goldman banker became homeless - David Weidner's Writing on the Wall - MarketWatch

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