To Save Civilization, the Rich Need to Pay Their Taxes: Historian Rutger Bregman Speaks Truth to Power at Davos and to Fox’s Tucker Carlson

Cer­tain econ­o­mists may have down­grad­ed the labor the­o­ry of val­ue, but most of us can agree on the basic moral intu­ition that no one per­son is worth mil­lions, even bil­lions, more than almost every­one else on the plan­et. Yet we live in a soci­ety that allows indi­vid­u­als to hoard mil­lions and bil­lions of dol­lars in cash, assets, and cap­i­tal gains, with­out even the pre­sump­tion that they demon­strate why they should have it–especially to the degree that the top 1% now holds more wealth than 90% in the U.S.

What social con­tract allows for this sit­u­a­tion? I’m not per­son­al­ly inter­est­ed in the answer from econ­o­mists, though I imag­ine there are many excel­lent­ly accred­it­ed pro­po­nents. The dom­i­nant assump­tions in eco­nom­ics come from fan­tasies like ceteris paribus, “all else being equal,” and the con­cept of “exter­nal­i­ties.” World his­tor­i­cal inequal­i­ty, polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty, and eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion do not seem to pose seri­ous prob­lems for most main­stream eco­nom­ic think­ing. But what do his­to­ri­ans say? This is, after all, a his­tor­i­cal ques­tion.

Many sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions have obtained in the past. Some­times they have result­ed in bloody rev­o­lu­tions, some­times sack­ing and pil­lag­ing, some­times redis­tri­b­u­tion schemes. Noblesse oblige: land grants, endow­ments, hos­pi­tals, muse­ums, uni­ver­si­ties… these have not only eased the con­sciences of the rich but have stood out as appeas­ing acts of pub­lic gen­eros­i­ty. But the only thing that has real­ly mit­i­gat­ed the con­di­tions for soci­etal col­lapse under cap­i­tal­ism?

Accord­ing to Dutch his­to­ri­an and writer Rut­ger Breg­man, it’s high tax­es on high incomes and estates. It just so hap­pened, how­ev­er, at this year’s Davos World Eco­nom­ic Forum, as Breg­man lament­ed in a Davos pan­el dis­cus­sion, tax­es were the one thing bil­lion­aires would not dis­cuss. This was so, he observes, at a con­fer­ence that fea­tures Sir David Atten­bor­ough “talk­ing about how we’re wreck­ing the plan­et.”

I mean, I hear peo­ple talk­ing the lan­guage of par­tic­i­pa­tion and jus­tice and equal­i­ty and trans­paren­cy, but then, I mean, almost no one rais­es the real issue of tax avoid­ance, right? And of the rich are just not pay­ing their fair share. I mean, it feels like I’m at a firefighter’s con­fer­ence and no one’s allowed to speak about water.

Pic­tur­ing fire­fight­ers hoard­ing water and refus­ing to share it while the plan­et is going up in flames is a sin­is­ter image, but maybe the inten­tions are beside the point. Even where tax rates are high(ish), gov­ern­ments go out of their way to allow com­pa­nies and indi­vid­u­als to avoid pay­ing them. Sure­ly, many peo­ple believe this is nec­es­sary to cre­ate jobs? So what if those jobs lack secu­ri­ty, ben­e­fits, or a liv­ing wage?

Breg­man pulls back from the inflam­ma­to­ry metaphor to con­cede that one pan­el did address the issue. He was one of fif­teen par­tic­i­pants. We have to “stop talk­ing about phil­an­thropy,” he says, “and start talk­ing about tax­es,” just like Amer­i­cans did in the sup­pos­ed­ly hal­cy­on days of the 1950s, when under Repub­li­can pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­how­er the top mar­gin­al tax rate was 91%. He says this to peo­ple like Michael Dell, who once asked Breg­man for an exam­ple of a 70% tax rate ever work­ing.

Oxfam’s exec­u­tive direc­tor Win­nie Byany­i­ma sub­stan­ti­ates his polemic, not­ing glob­al­ly “we have a tax sys­tem that leaks so much, that $170 bil­lion” annu­al­ly ends up in tax havens. This is wealth that is extract­ed from the planet’s resources, from gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies and the labor hours and health of gross­ly under­paid work­ers. Then it is dis­ap­peared. If you’ve seen this video, you’ve seen the charges of “one-sid­ed­ness” lobbed by for­mer Yahoo CFO Ken Gold­man from the audi­ence. Byany­i­ma’s response rebuts all of his talk­ing points. She deserves her own cheer­lead­ing video edit.

Breg­man took the same con­fronta­tion­al stance in an unaired inter­view with Fox’s Tuck­er Carl­son. After Carl­son seemed to agree with him, the his­to­ri­an bris­tled and point­ed out that as “a mil­lion­aire fund­ed by bil­lion­aires,” Carl­son has faith­ful­ly rep­re­sent­ed and com­mu­ni­cat­ed the inter­ests of his employ­ers for decades, whether that’s the bru­tal scape­goat­ing of immi­grants or the defense of unlim­it­ed prof­i­teer­ing and huge tax cuts for the wealthy (and tax rais­es for every­one else). The host ends the inter­view sput­ter­ing insults and obscen­i­ties and sneers “I was will­ing to give you a hear­ing.” The prob­lem requires more than a con­de­scend­ing pat on the head, Breg­man argues.

His solu­tion to mas­sive inequal­i­ty and unrest, uni­ver­sal basic income, is one that, like high mar­gin­al tax rates, once appealed to Repub­li­cans. The pro­pos­al has a long his­to­ry, many seri­ous detrac­tors, and it’s also polit­i­cal­ly ignored. You can hear Bregman’s argu­ment for it above, and against Mar­garet Thatcher’s ruth­less­ly ahis­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of pover­ty as a “per­son­al­i­ty defect.” If you think UBI goes too far, or not near­ly far enough, maybe you’d be inter­est­ed in oth­er ideas, like a 15-hour work­week and open bor­ders, part of the “ide­al world” Breg­man says is pos­si­ble in his book Utopia for Real­ists. You can down­load it as a free audio­book if you sign up for Audi­ble’s free tri­al pro­gram.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Alan Watts’s 1960s Pre­dic­tion That Automa­tion Will Neces­si­tate a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income

Experts Pre­dict When Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Will Take Our Jobs: From Writ­ing Essays, Books & Songs, to Per­form­ing Surgery and Dri­ving Trucks

Bertrand Rus­sell & Buck­min­ster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Gerald says:

    With respect, the moral intu­ition that “no one per­son is worth mil­lions, even bil­lions, more than almost every­one else” is not cor­rect. I assume what is meant by no one being “worth” such sums, is that no one deserves such afflu­ence rel­a­tive to oth­ers. But, if that were real­ly true, mil­lions of peo­ple, of their own free will, would not be bestow­ing such wealth upon those peo­ple. In free mar­kets, wealth accru­al results from the pro­vi­sion of goods or ser­vices that peo­ple want and demand. When one pro­vides those goods and ser­vices, peo­ple vote with their pock­et­books, reward­ing those peo­ple. Thus, for exam­ple, when Steve Jobs cre­at­ed the iPhone and became fab­u­lous­ly wealthy, it was because he pro­duced some­thing that mil­lions of peo­ple loved and want­ed. Like­wise, when Sam Wal­ton cre­at­ed a chain of stores with goods priced far low­er than com­pet­ing retail­ers, he too was reward­ed by the pub­lic. The beau­ty of free mar­kets — and why no oth­er eco­nom­ic sys­tem has come any­where near the ben­e­fits they bestow — is that they give indi­vid­u­als the incen­tive to pro­vide to oth­ers what they tru­ly want, and suc­cess is deter­mined by how well they achieve that goal. Adopt­ing poli­cies that would dimin­ish those incen­tive would impov­er­ish every­one.

  • Lonnie says:

    Very true Ger­ald. Not to men­tion that since the advent of cap­i­tal­ism, pover­ty has shrunk leaps and bounds.

  • Tony says:

    Soci­ety “allows” indi­vid­u­als to “hoard” wealth they “have”? Wealth, whether a nick­el or dime or a bil­lion dol­lars, must first be cre­at­ed. For the peo­ple who cre­ate wealth at any lev­el (not crim­i­nals), they deserve their wealth—their achieve­ment, and have no need to jus­ti­fy their exis­tence to any­one. Wealth cre­ation is moral, and they may do with their prop­er­ty as they see fit. As for soci­ety “allow­ing” peo­ple to keep their wealth, that’s why we have a con­sti­tu­tion­al gov­ern­ment based upon indi­vid­ual rights, to pre­vent “soci­ety” and his­to­ri­ans from putting their grub­by hands on the wealth and per­sons of those who earned it.

  • gwr says:

    In response to Tony; Quite a lot of bil­lion­aires ARE crim­i­nals. At least by most con­ven­tion­al stan­dards of ethics and moral­i­ty.

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