Tax the rich: these one percenters want people like them to pay higher taxes

Members of the Patriotic Millionaires say the income gap in the US has become a disaster – and it’s time to ‘take that money back’

The sound system played Pink Floyd’s Money as the Patriotic Millionaires assembled in the boutique Eaton hotel in Washington DC last week. After compulsory Covid tests there was a lot of well-heeled hugging and laughter among a crowd that looked like extras from Succession as they sat down at tables stacked with M&Ms stamped with “tax the rich”.

This was the first time since the pandemic that the Patriotic Millionaires had assembled together in person. The group, founded in 2010, is made up of high net worth individuals who believe – counterintuitively these days – that the really rich should pay more taxes. And after a dozen often frustrating years some of them now believe change is coming.

In the White House, Joe Biden has proposed new taxes on households worth more than $100m. The war in Ukraine has shown that the international community can, and will, crack down on oligarchs. Some of the workers who made fortunes for Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Starbucks’s Howard Schultz have successfully formed unions despite the millions both companies spent fighting them off.

“No one was talking about taxing the rich when we started,” said Morris Pearl, chair of the Patriotic Millionaires and a former managing director at BlackRock, the largest money manager in the world.

Even the conversation seemed ridiculous under Donald Trump, Pearl added. “We have seen a huge change. You have a president talking about taxing the rich, people are talking about wealth taxes – those weren’t even fringe ideas 10 years ago. I’m not saying it’s going to happen and pass into law but there are conversations at the highest levels.”

Part of the reason why those conversations are happening is that the situation has got so bad. Speaker after speaker at the one-day conference highlighted how the very, very rich have hijacked the political system around the world, run down wages and exacerbated income inequality, ramming home the title of the conference: Oligarchs vs All of Us: The Fight for Power & Money.

Another member, Gary Stevenson, a British trader turned inequality economist, believes things are only going to get worse. Billionaires made fortunes from soaring stock markets, property prices and other assets during the pandemic. Government handouts have largely helped the rich, he argues. “If nothing is done this is going to be a massive disaster,” he said. “However bad you think things are, I guarantee they will get much, much worse.”

When the pandemic struck there was talk of it being a great leveler – we were all in this together. In fact, Covid-19 exacerbated economic and racial inequalities. US billionaires received a $1.1tn windfall as their wealth soared to record levels. The billionaire class boomed in Asia and reached record levels in the UK. But as we emerge from the shadow of Covid-19, hoi poloi find themselves struggling with soaring inflation and rising cost of basics such as rent, utilities and food.

For Stevenson this enormous explosion of wealth is “end of civilization stuff”. “There is one thing and one thing only that we can do,” he said. “We have got to take that money back.”

But are rich – and overwhelmingly white – people the right people to push that message? Abigail Disney thinks so. Disney, the granddaughter of Roy Disney, co-founder of the Walt Disney Company, sees her family as a synechdoche for what has happened to the rest of America.

The Disneys were already super-rich by the time Disney, 62, was born but their wealth grew enormously just as the gap between rich and poor has grown. “Money changed my family,” she said, and not for the better. Now, she says, those rich people live in another world and are unable to see what the consequences of rising inequality will be. Hearing that from one of their own breaks that barrier, she believes.

“The only people billionaires will listen to are other billionaires and multimillionaires. You need at least the two commas. And if they won’t listen, there are their children and their wives, and they will listen,” she said.

While her money opens the doors of power, Disney finds her message also discombobulates ordinary Americans. She is regularly assailed on Twitter for daring to suggest rich people should pay more taxes. The problem is that people have been convinced that “every single person in this country is a billionaire waiting to happen”, in an orchestrated campaign she believes was engineered to protect the wealth of the 1%.

The last four decades have seen a massive redistribution of wealth. Only problem is it went to those who were already wealthy.

— Abigail Disney (@abigaildisney) April 5, 2022

Hearing one of the 1% suggest that maybe that dream is a nightmare makes people crazy, she said. “The pushback I get is: ‘You never worked a day in your life! You don’t know anything!’ Well, you are right, you are making my point for me! I should not have this power and influence. Just keep making my point for me,” she said.

“For me to be speaking out against my own supposed self-interest has a wow factor that catches the attention. I don’t want to ever stop doing that. We need to model what it looks like to not defend your own self-interest all the time. When you are fine and other people are not, you put aside your own self-interest and stick up for somebody else.”

The chance of Biden’s tax cuts making it through Congress are slim. US politicians rely too heavily on the wealthy and some Democrats as well as Republicans will balk at taxing them more. But Disney argues that the debate has changed. After the pandemic, US oligarchs aren’t the heroes they once were and, notably, Republicans have so far steered clear of an all-out attack on Biden’s proposal.

“Four years ago if you’d said ‘billionaires tax’ then they would have said you can’t bash billionaires, you’re encouraging class warfare. I haven’t heard a whiff of that,” said Disney. “Let’s not kid ourselves, the other side has tested that and found it isn’t working. That class war rhetoric isn’t working any more. And that’s good news. Because if we don’t ruffle some feathers now, we are going to have a class war. A real one.”


Dominic Rushe in Washington DC

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Trump's tax proposal would push US below Greece on inequality index
Researchers say tax reform plan would increase gap between rich and poor, and would see US fall six places in global ranking

Amanda Holpuch in New York

16, Jul, 2017 @11:01 PM

Article image
Think billionaires are just super-rich people? Big mistake | Arwa Mahdawi
The hard realities of extreme wealth – political influence and jaw-dropping inequality – should have us protesting in the streets

Arwa Mahdawi

06, Nov, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
World's richest 0.1% have boosted their wealth by as much as poorest half
Inequality report also shows UK’s 50,000 richest people have seen their share of the country’s wealth double since 1984

Rupert Neate Wealth correspondent

14, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Inequality gap widens as 42 people hold same wealth as 3.7bn poorest
Oxfam calls for action on gap as wealthiest people gather at World Economic Forum in Davos

Larry Elliott Economics editor

22, Jan, 2018 @12:01 AM

Article image
Blackstone CEO blames gap between rich and poor on income 'insufficiency'
Steve Schwarzman outlined what he called a Marshall plan for the middle class that would introduce a higher minimum wage

Dominic Rushe in New York

18, Apr, 2019 @2:54 PM

Article image
IMF boss says raise taxes on the rich to tackle inequality
Kristalina Georgieva calls for rethink of economic policies to better help those left behind

Larry Elliott Economics editor

07, Jan, 2020 @5:36 PM

Article image
The US is on ‘inequality autopilot’ – how can Biden's treasury pick help change course?
Janet Yellen will likely be the US’s first female treasury secretary – but as Covid shutdowns loom, she will have to win Republican votes for any major initiatives

Dominic Rushe and Amanda Holpuch in New York

28, Nov, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Coronavirus batters US economy as 6.65m file for unemployment last week
US sees second major unemployment rise as millions working in retail, restaurants, and travel lose jobs

Dominic Rushe and Lauren Aratani in New York

02, Apr, 2020 @12:52 PM

Article image
The industry of inequality: why the world is obsessed with private security
New Guardian research shows private security workers outnumber public police officers for the majority of the world – in a business that now dwarfs what is spent trying to end global poverty

Claire Provost

12, May, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Inequality is not inevitable – but the US 'experiment' is a recipe for divergence
At the launch of their World Inequality Report, Thomas Piketty and colleagues explain the past, present and future trends of inequality around the world

Facundo Alvaredo, Lucas Chancel, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman

14, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM