A weekly newsletter from the Institute for Policy Studies
Vogue just published an unmissable profile of Lauren Sánchez, the “newscaster turned helicopter pilot turned philanthropist” who calls Jeff Bezos her fiancée. Sánchez held court and posed for Annie Leibovitz snaps at Bezos’ vast Texan ranch, just one of their opulent properties where “the vibe was Oppenheimer meets Amangiri.”
The happy couple invites readers into their more boilerplate billionaire activities, like attending philanthropic galas and hustling humble origin stories, while they cosplay as cowboys — a time-honored rich-people behavior.
It's mystifying: These two have all the resources in the world. Were they not embarrassed by how they’ve been presented? But by the end of the profile, it couldn’t be more clear: This is how they want to be seen, as quirked-up, rugged sovereigns who defy mortality with underground clocks and reusable rockets and sail the world on a yacht embellished with a Norse Goddess figurehead.
When it comes to that yacht, “Sánchez,” notes writer Chloe Malle, “is undaunted by the question of how she reconciles her own carbon footprint with her environmental work.”
In addition to the couple’s “long-term commitment to climate,” Sánchez explains, they use green aviation fuel whenever possible and their main yacht can sail using only wind power: “We’ve done it and it is magical.”
We’ve got some more practical magic for you: our latest report on the true cost of billionaire philanthropy. Along with our ace researcher Helen Flannery, we reveal that America’s ultra-wealthy claim the lion’s share of the hundreds of billions in annual tax subsidies to incentivize charitable giving.
These deep pockets are regularly channeling their dollars into insufficiently accountable intermediaries. Some 41 cents of every individual dollar donated to charity in 2022 went to one of these intermediaries.
Let's celebrate the start of our most altruistic season — when charities receive their most urgent support — by calling attention to how wealthy donors are distorting philanthropy to extend their private power and influence.
We’ll be off next week for the holiday. Wishing you the happiest Thanksgiving!
Chuck Collins and Bella DeVaan
for the Institute for Policy Studies' Inequality.org team
INEQUALITY BY THE NUMBERS
This Building Cleaner Survived Covid-19. She Thanks Her Union Benefits.
Over the course of this year, more than 130,000 building cleaners all across the country are negotiating new contracts, hoping to notch more historic victories for the labor movement. On the line? Their ability to keep living and working in their home cities with ease and dignity.
In New York, negotiations began last week for a new contract covering the 20,000 union cleaners who steward some of the city’s most iconic buildings. Ena Softley has been in this line of hard work for 37 years and loves it: She’s helping people and feels secured by the gains of decades of union organizing. Inequality.org’s Bella DeVaan caught up with Softley in a new Q&A, excerpted here.
Inequality.org: Tell us about how work has been for you over the last few years. How did the pandemic change your life?
Ena Softley: I got Covid in March 2020. I was very, very ill. But because of my union benefits and insurance, I was able to keep seeing my private doctor, who treated me over Zoom. For three weeks, he couldn’t break my fever. He warned me: If I went back to work before the pandemic ended, my body wouldn’t be able to defeat the virus again.
But after staying home for three months trying to recover, stringing together my vacation and sick days, I had to come back to work. The city was still shut down — so we became essential workers. We couldn’t leave: How would we get paid? We couldn’t exactly work from home.
Inequality.org: What was it like to return to work in the midst of the pandemic?
Ena Softley: Riding the empty subway, looking up and down a deserted Times Square, my building looming, the weight of expectations intensified. My breathing got heavy: I have labored breathing ever since Covid and take steroids and medication, which I can afford only because of my benefits. I was so nervous and afraid because so many people were dying. I thought, what if I get it again?
We risked our lives, coming back. But we did it because we’d just signed a four-year contract in December of 2019. We’d invested so much in winning that contract over the course of decades, which enabled me to keep my health insurance and take time off to recover.
Union workers are reliable: We showed up for our buildings. We kept sanitizing and wiping everything off. I was forced to get a grip of my fear — and after that, I just kept going.
Inequality.org: Your contract will expire at the end of the year. What do you and your fellow union members hope to secure in your next contract?
Ena Softley: It’s simple. For one, we want a fair wage increase: Prices are going up and we should be able to meet them. And we love and must keep our healthcare. If my coworkers and I didn’t have reliable plans during Covid, we would have died. As we get older, healthcare and strong pensions will be all the more important.
Inequality.org: What’s your response to the fact that a select few Americans increased their wealth by more than a trillion dollars while so many people suffered over the last few years?
Ena Softley: It’s beyond disappointing that extreme wealth grew so much here in the city — the nation’s most unequal and billionaire-friendly — while we struggle, suffer, and worry about our future ability to reside here. If cities want their downtowns to come back to life, the people who maintain office buildings need to be paid a decent wage with good health care.
Use Public Money to Narrow Pay Gaps at Government Contractors
Call center worker Christina Jimenez and hundreds of her co-workers, mostly women of color, walked off the job last week to put pressure on their employer, Maximus, and the federal government.
At a Maximus facility in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Jimenez often handles hundreds of calls per day to help seniors access their Medicare benefits. But, as Jimenez explains in an exclusive for Inequality.org, she doesn’t have affordable health coverage for her family. At her $16.20-per-hour wage, she can barely stay afloat.
“The Biden administration pays Maximus to run its Affordable Care Act and Medicare call centers,” Jimenez explains. “The administration has the power to use public money to discourage contractors from funneling money into their CEOs’ pockets and instead ensure living wages and fair employment practices.”
More on how we can help workers for companies receiving public money below.
Our World’s Richest Can Move to Avoid Taxes. But Can They Hide?
Jeff Bezos is moving. Our Earth’s second-richest human being has been calling the Pacific Northwest home for quite some time. But he’s just announced on Instagram that he’s decamping from Seattle and making Florida his new home sweet home. The move, says Bezos, will bring him closer to his parents who now live in Miami. But the move doesn’t just bring Bezos closer to ma and pa. Bezos has had plenty of financial motivation to make the move — ever since Washington State started rolling up its low-tax welcome mat for the richest among us. Inequality.org’s Sam Pizzigati has more.
PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK
At Home and Office, Grins Not Coming Easy for This Deep Pocket
This week’s dour deep pocket: The billionaire John Overdeck, the co-founder of the New York-based Two Sigma, one of the world’s largest hedge funds.
What has him sour: Hard to know who infuriates Overdeck more, his Two Sigma co-founder David Siegel or his own wife Laura, a philanthropist with degrees in astrophysics from Princeton and public policy from Wharton. John and Laura married in 2002, the year after Two Sigma launched.
Two Sigma would eventually make billionaires — and bitter personal enemies — out of Overdeck and Siegel. How far has their feuding escalated? Their hedge fund, the New York Times reports, no longer holds all-hands meetings “because the founders refuse to address employees or investors together at events.”
Laura Overdeck, meanwhile, filed for divorce last year. She’s alleging that her husband, a former key lieutenant to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has moved hefty chunks of his over $7-billion fortune to Wyoming to keep them off the table in any divorce settlement.
The last word: Wyoming rates as one of “the nation’s legal sewers,” asset protection attorney Jay Adkisson told Forbes earlier this year. “People go there when they’re trying to cheat somebody else.”
This week on Inequality.org
Helen Flannery, Would Your DAF Rather Be a Charity or a Warehouse? Figuring out the MO of donor-advised funds can be difficult. Our new analysis discerns sponsor priorities from their public websites.
Manuel Pérez-Rocha, The Huge Paradox at Biden’s Summit of Latin American Leaders. Summit leaders claim to support social and environmental goals. But they’re failing to challenge the corporate power that undermines those objectives.
Elsewhere on the Web
Marty Schladen, Solutions proposed to reduce executive self-dealing, Ohio Capital Journal. Sure, running a large business is highly demanding. But whether it’s worth 272 times what the average worker does for the enterprise is questionable. A summary of our latest report on CEO pay.
Arielle Samuelson, Surprise! Billionaires aren’t solving climate change, Heated. Are the mega-rich giving enough to actually offset the environmental harm they cause? Not even close.
Morgan Lee, Santa Fe voters approve tax on mansions in New Mexico, Associated Press. The vote signals rising public support for “mansion taxes” to fund affordable housing and stave off homelessness.
Jim Hightower, The Billionaires Behind School Privatization, Eldorado News. Oilmen like Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks from West Texas have become the Money Gods of school privatization.
Bob Kustra, The recent wins by U.S. unions are heartening. But lavish CEO pay is out of control, Idaho Statesman. The salary packages of corporate execs need to figure much more prominently in media coverage of worker efforts to gain their fair share, says the former president of Boise State University.
Vicky Spratt, Is the wealth gap ruining friendships? Guardian. The relational dividing lines caused by having money, or not, could be about to deepen.
Scott Klinger, America’s broken retirement system, CNN. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon has amassed $169 million in his company’s deferred compensation plan, enough to deliver McMillon a monthly retirement check of $1 million.
Seth Berkowitz and Colin Orr, Three Lessons About Diabetes and the Social Determinants of Health, Diabetes Care. Why we need “policies that can help equalize the unequal distributions of power and resources that drive the unequal distribution of poor health.”
Les Leopold, Layoff Capitalism, Wall Street’s War on Workers. How Wall Street deregulation unleashed a torrent of leveraged buyouts and stock buybacks that enriched the already rich.
What Scorpion Venom Has To Do With Amazon’s Monopoly, More Perfect Union. An Amazon customer ordered a hat. She was sent a vial of scorpion venom instead. That customer, writer Meagan Day, got a valuable lesson about why Amazon is now charged with running an illegal monopoly in a landmark FTC suit.
Zachary Crockett and Chuck Collins, How We're All Paying for Millionaires' Private Jets, Freakonomics: The Economics of Everyday Things. Executives shell out millions of dollars for the privilege of flying private, but that convenience comes at a steep cost to the rest of us. Get ready for takeoff.
A steep drop in IRS audits of the wealthy has allowed the richest Americans to get away with avoiding billions of dollars in taxes per year. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act boosted tax enforcement funding, but Republicans have repeatedly attempted to rescind these resources, most recently through a Ukraine aid bill. For an interactive version of this chart and related charts, check out the link below.
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Managing Editor: Isabella DeVaan
Co-Editors: Sarah Anderson, Chuck Collins, and Sam Pizzigati
Production: Isabella DeVaan and Kufre McIver