How the ultra-wealthy use charitable giving to avoid taxes and exert influence — while ordinary taxpayers foot the bill.
I’m taking a risk here.
Perhaps you’ve heard me talk in the past about our extreme inequality of wealth. I’ve been advocating for higher taxes on the richest among us for over two decades. I did this TEDx talk on “Taxing the Wealthy,” for instance, four years ago
Now I have a new TEDx talk out that comes at our inequality from a somewhat different direction. In this new talk, I invite our planet’s wealthy — the people I grew up with — to “come home” and humbly invest in building resilient and healthy communities. I urge them to donate their money, pay their taxes, and establish a stake in building an economy that works for everyone.
I speak in this TEDx as someone who comes from the 1 percent. My message to America’s wealthy: Our extreme inequality of wealth and the climate crisis have brought us to a critical juncture. The ecological catastrophe at our door will destroy the real foundation of all wealth, our ecological wealth.
What wealth do we have, after all, without clean fresh water? Without pollinators and fertile soil? Without healthy oceans? How can we have wealth on a devastated planet?
The wealthy cannot escape this devastation. Sea level rises will swamp island paradises, forest fires will choke off and flash floods will drench mountain getaways. We have no other planet. All wealthy people have a deep self-interest in fixing our ecological future.
So my invitation to the rich: Come home. Do not retreat into enclaves of protected privilege. Do not withdraw and disconnect from humanity at this critical historical juncture.
Bring your wealth home. You control vast amounts of capital. Take this capital out of the Wall Street casino. Stop chasing around the planet for double-digit speculative financial returns. Bring home the estimated $7.6 trillion hiding in offshore tax havens.
Divest and invest. Move your money out of the old fossil fuel carbon burning economy — and redirect it into renewable energy and the real economy. This new economy is emerging all around us: local and regional food systems, green energy and infrastructure, small businesses creating wealth and livelihoods.
Support these local new economy efforts in all corners of the world. Share your treasure, share yourself. Give generously and smartly, but don’t warehouse wealth waiting for some perfect moment or perfect organization. The moment has arrived.
Pay your fair share of taxes. Let the next generation have the same opportunities you had, provided by public investments in education, research, and infrastructure.
Proceed with humility, anonymously and without publicity or fanfare. Wealthy people do not rate as super-heroes. But given the enormous contemporary concentration of wealth and power, we do have a pivotal role to play.
Some people without great wealth may not like this message. I’m not sure I would have liked it two years ago either. Some of you may be feeling rage and anger at unaccountable wealth and privileged power. How can one hedge fund manager buy a prescription drug that people need and jack up the price astronomically? I feel the same anger. You and I also see organized billionaires using their wealth and power to rig the economy to their benefit. No denying.
But I’m not sure my thirty years of traditional inequality organizing have moved us toward the transformation we need. So I’m making this appeal to a deeper self-interest of the wealthy.
I’ve learned an important lesson from my work as an organizer on inequality issues. We need to find ways to invite the wealthy to come to the table. This will require proceeding with empathy, even love and compassion. Think of the wealthy as your long-lost cousins, taken from you. The wealthy have essentially been wandering in exile, disconnected from humanity.
Here’s the big secret we need to face: Fear and disconnection hold our current system in place. If attacked, wealthy folks respond from fear. If shamed, they may respond from anger. If invited, they may show up and engage.
The good news? We have an emerging movement of wealthy people coming home. Check out the Patriotic Millionaires, Resource Generation, and the growing Divest-Invest movement. Check out RSF Finance, investing “off the Wall Street grid” into local communities. Read the novel, Billionaire Buddha, based on the real-life radical generosity of Dariel Garner.
Many of our wealthy are waiting to be asked and invited to something greater. Let’s keep in mind our real enemy, and that real enemy just happens to be not the rich, but an economic system that destroys nature and divides people. We need to be fighting the myths of deservedness that justify these divisions. We need to do battle against the rigged rules that funnel wealth to a few and compound disadvantages for the many.
Together, we can rewire ourselves for mutuality, heal from our brokenness and disconnection, and fix the future.
Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he coordinates the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. His new TEDx talk, taped in October 2015 at TEDx Jamaica Plain, is now available.