Dozens of activists, organizers, elected officials, and ultra-wealthy individuals came together in Washington, D.C. last week around a simple theme: it’s time to tax rich people. The gathering was put together by the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of proud “traitors to their class,” committed to breaking up the concentration of wealth and power in the United States.
The conference featured many of these millionaires sharing notes on a similar theme. They had made their money through a combination of hard work and public institutions that helped them every step of the way. Now, they want to make sure these institutions, like the debt-free higher education that many consider pivotal to their success, will be available to future generations – and are rightly concerned that they won’t be. The solution, they all agree, is to restore historically high taxes on people like themselves.
Patriotic Millionaires board chair Morris Pearl wanted the crowd to know he wasn’t there out of altruism. “I’m a greedy millionaire” he said. “But I’m greedy for the country I grew up in. Social mobility. Debt free college. A place where you could be born to a family without a lot of money and get ahead.”
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) echoed these sentiments, sharing his own story of humble beginnings in a middle-class family led by his father who worked as a mechanic. They were able to live comfortably on a single income from a person who did not have a college degree. That life would nearly impossible today, he said.
Inequality.org co-editors Chuck Collins and Sarah Anderson were on hand to explain just exactly how we might go about taxing the very rich. Sarah presented on “taxing the gap,” a proposal to levy taxes on companies that they their executives exorbitant sums compared to their average workers. McDonalds, she shared, paid their CEO 5,000 times more than they paid their average worker.
Chuck explained that merely taxing income was not enough to break up today’s deeply entrenched economic inequality. To do that, we also need to directly tax wealth. He pointed to Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to impose a progressive tax on fortunes greater than $50 million. If we don’t take action to reduce wealth concentration, he warned, citing Thomas Piketty, “the heirs of today’s billionaires will dominate our politics, culture, philanthropy and economy.”
Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) told the room that just three people in the United States own more wealth than the bottom half of the country combined, citing our Institute for Policy Studies Billionaire Bonanza report. She explained her efforts to reform the tax code to tax capital gains as ordinary income.
“Why is work taxed more than capital gains?” she implored. “There’s no logical reason other the fact that rich have more influence and power.”
What the rich are doing today is not particularly new, Ryan Grim of the Intercept told the crowd. They’re fleecing the public for their own private gain. “It’s not that people are more clever today” he said. “The mafia has been doing this kind of thing for over a hundred years.”
Patriotic Millionaire Sherry McVickar, an heiress, shared her experience paying estate tax when she inherited her fortune from her parents. The Trump tax cuts give wealthy people like her – the very people who least need a tax cut the least – a huge handout, McVickar said.
“I paid millions in estate taxes and I was proud to pay my fair share,” she said. “Had I inherited money after the Trump tax cuts, however, I would paid just a couple hundred thousand.”
While the bulk of the day focused on how to raise taxes, the program also included presentations on what happens if we fail to act. Syracuse University professor Shannon Monnat presented on her research on “deaths of despair.” Deaths from suicide, drugs, alcohol deaths have doubled in the past 20 years, an indicator of economic and social distress. She showed that a more equal economy would have meant 40,000 fewer deaths of despair over this time period, lives lost as a result of our deeply entrenched inequality.
Watch the entire conference below: