One afternoon last week a solitary man stood on a street corner outside of California's Capitol holding a hand-made sign. Scrawled on a piece of plain cardboard box was this message: "United States of Inequality."
It was a small sign among several small signs that the issue of income inequality could emerge as a major political issue in California in this election year.
It certainly will become that if Ron Unz, an eccentric Silicon Valley businessman who not long ago sold his financial analytics software firm to Moody's, makes good on his return to initiative politics after a 16-year hiatus.
Unz was last heard from in California politics when he sponsored, financially underwrote and brilliantly managed the successful 1998 campaign for Proposition 227, which dramatically changed bilingual education in a way that sought to transition students to English more quickly.
Before that, he shook up Republican politics in the state in 1994 by challenging incumbent GOP Gov. Pete Wilson in the primary, and received more than a third of the vote.
Since he disappeared from politics, Unz, who holds a degree in physics from Harvard, has focused his intellectual curiosity on public policy -- in recent years, specifically on the minimum wage.
He wrote a 12,000-word article on the subject in 2011, and then worked on behalf of the New America Foundation to help provide the intellectual justification for an increase in the federal minimum wage.
But there appeared to be little hope for action on the federal level. Then, for Unz, a light bulb that had dimmed long ago switched back on.
"It suddenly struck me, especially since nothing was happening in Congress, a state initiative in California could become a very powerful focal point," he told me Tuesday.
Unz drew up an initiative that seeks to raise the California minimum wage to $10 an hour on March 1, 2015 (nine months earlier than now scheduled), and to $12 an hour on March 1, 2016. He calls it the "Higher Wages for California Workers Act of 2014."
Unz believes "there's a very good chance it will be on the ballot." He says he's willing to put some of his own money into the effort, that it's generating "a lot of populist support" and that, after he reassured those who were at first skeptical about his motives, organized labor will be on board.
He is still a Republican, and many of his arguments for raising the minimum wage are based on his desire to reduce social welfare costs borne by taxpayers.
He notes that U.S. taxpayers spend $250 billion annually on social welfare programs that benefit the working poor. Taxpayers, he argues, would save from $40 billion to $70 billion a year "if the working poor were no longer so poor."
"We're talking about corporate welfare," he said. "The government subsidizes low-wage workers to the tune of $250 billion a year. They couldn't survive unless taxpayers were keeping them afloat. Right now, businesses are privatizing the benefits of their labor and socializing the costs."
Unz calls the traditional arguments against the minimum wage "nonsense." Most low-wage workers are employed in service-sector jobs that cannot be outsourced abroad and the effect on retail prices would be minuscule, he asserts.
"Walmart could raise all workers' wages to $12 an hour by implementing a one-time increase in prices of 1.1 percent," Unz said. "That would mean a typical Walmart shopper would pay $12.50 in extra costs per year."
He also notes that the last time a minimum-wage increase was on the ballot in California, in 1996, opponents argued that it would result in widespread loss of jobs -- but after it passed, the statewide unemployment rate fell from 7.3 percent to 4.9 percent over the following four years.
Unz estimates that millions of California workers would see their incomes increase by $5,000 a year. Nationally, he says, "if you're putting an extra $150 billion into the pockets of workers who spend every dime they earn, it would be an enormous economic stimulus."
And then there's that inequality issue.
"The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans have as much wealth as the bottom 95 percent -- which is very unhealthy," he said.
Unz acknowledges that the timetable for qualifying the initiative for the November ballot will be tight. But he's already shown that he's very shrewd at applying his skills in financial analytics to ballot-measure politics.
He shouldn't be underestimated. Ron Unz may be just the right fellow with just the right vehicle to ignite a very serious debate about inequality in the coming election season.