Giving up privilege to end income equality

I read a lot of stuff, both news and opinion.

Once in a while, though, I read something that sticks in my head as quite wonderful, quite unusual. And a recent New York Times opinion piece by Darren Walker, “Are You Willing to Give Up Your Privilege? Philanthropy alone won’t save the American dream,” head of the Ford Foundation, is one of them.

Walker is an unusual man. He has the power to give away billions of dollars a year, but grew up poor. He is black and gay. And very, very smart and thoughtful.

One thing he didn’t do in his essay was emphasize the virtue of very rich people who, through their foundations, give away money. I was particularly glad of this; I have a gnawing irritation about the grandeur of people like Bill Gates who purport to rise above their billions into the heavenly realm of…handing out alms. Handing out alms where they decide their alms should go.

Where do I think Bill Gates’ alms should go? Into our Treasury, in the form of high taxes, wherefrom grants which correspond to the choices of Us The People, i.e., the electorate, would be issued.

Walker begins his story at a fund-raiser:

I have lived on both sides of American inequality. I began life in the bottom 1 percent but found my way to the top. And I know, all too personally, that the distance between the two never has been greater.

Last winter, at a black-tie gala — the kind of event where guests pay $100,000 for a table — I joined some of New York’s wealthiest philanthropists in an opulently decorated ballroom. I had the ominous sense that we were eating lobster on the Titanic.

That evening, a billionaire who made his money in private equity delivered a soliloquy to me about America’s dazzling economic growth and record low unemployment among African-Americans in particular. I reminded him that many of these jobs are low-wage and dead-end, and that the proliferation of these very jobs is one reason that inequality is growing worse. He simply looked past me, over my shoulder.

Walker pins down income inequality:

Inequality in America was not born of the market’s invisible hand. It was not some unavoidable destiny. It was created by the hands and sustained effort of people who engineered benefits for themselves, to the detriment of everyone else. American inequality was decades in the making, one expensive lobbyist and policy change at a time. It will take a concerted effort to reverse all of this, and to remake America in the process.

Well, yes, you might say. Sounds good but sounds like everything we’ve heard before.

Then Mr. Walker goes a bit rogue:

The boardroom elite are beginning to recognize that these unfairly structured incentives have grossly distorted our economy. I see an evolving understanding that our twisted economy is an existential threat that has pushed our republic to a breaking point.

This awareness is necessary. But it is not sufficient.

Instead, those of us with power and privilege must grapple with a more profound question: What are we willing to give up?

If we, the beneficiaries of a system that perpetuates inequality, are trying to reform this system that favors us, we will have to give up something. Here are a few of the special privileges and benefits we should be willing to surrender: the intricate web of tax policies that bolster our wealth; the entrenched system in American colleges of legacy admissions, which gives a leg up to our children; and above all, the expectation that, because of our money, we are entitled to a place at the front of the line.

I spent the first part of my career on Wall Street, and I believe that capitalism is the best means of organizing an economy. But capitalism must be reformed if we are to save our democracy.

This will require rejecting Milton Friedman’s outmoded ideology: the dogma that a company must put shareholder value above all other objectives. It will require that corporations operate, in the words of the Business Roundtable, “for the benefit of all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.”

Our economy is unbalanced because conscious choices, in the aggregate, amount to a conscienceless capitalism. These choices erode democracy and foment distrust. We, the people, can make different choices. And we, the wealthy and privileged, should lean in to our discomfort.

When I first heard about the Business Roundtable, I went into sarcastic fulmination. Primarily because it was all so aren’t we being saintly to (voluntarily) discuss this, without actually supporting politicians and legislation to make it work?

I like Darren Walker much better.

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