I just watched an October 2011 TED talk given by the great-grandson of Oscar Meyer. He wasn’t talking about wieners. He was making the case for estate taxes, something the Bush administration did away with. He told several stories, which you can see on the video below, but one really brought it home for me.
The speaker was Chuck Collins, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and director of IPS’s Program on Inequality and the Common Good. He was born into wealth, thanks to his great-grandfather’s business acumen. Wealthy people are his family. They are the people he grew up with. He says they need to be taxed.
That’s where the story came in, and that’s important because inequality is dangerous and it’s increasing everywhere. It leads to unrest, deep poverty, hunger, and, ultimately, revolutions. We have to learn to tell stories that remind our policy makers they have responsibilities to reverse that trend.
Collins and Bill Gates, Sr., had written a book together, Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes, and were on a book tour. In Portland, Maine, they spoke to 250 business owners. Collins spoke first. When he told them the estate tax should be reinstated, he could see by their body language what they thought of his message.
Then Bill Gates spoke. What he had to say softened the room:
“Some of you here probably want to take the estate tax to the gallows. Before you do, let me plead clemency. If you have $10 million in this society, if you have $50 million in this society, if you have $50 billion in this society…” And then he chuckled and said, “I only know one person who has that much money in this society, my son.
“If you have that kind of wealth, you didn’t do it alone. You got help. Our society created the fertile ground that made that wealth possible.”
He reminded the group that previous generations were taxed at much higher rates. Now governments were crying poverty. They were slashing social programs, gutting regulatory systems, cutting infrastructure spending. Gates told the audience that was just plain wrong.
“The reason why the wealthy should pay more in our society is they have disproportionately benefited from the commonwealth that we have all built together. If you are so fortunate that you have accumulated that kind of wealth, then you have a responsibility to recycle that opportunity so that others can have a similar advantage.”
Gates made a much more effective pitch than Collins had because he shaped his pitch as a story the audience could relate to. They had all worked hard to get to that room, but none of them had made it alone. They had leaned on the schools and universities that trained them and their employees, the publicly funded research that provided them technological advantages, and the legal system that protected their work. They depended on the roads that delivered their goods and the water they used in their plants. Gates told them an estate tax was a way of repaying those gifts so that other people could receive some of the same benefits they had.
When he stopped speaking, Collins said, the room had gone quiet and misty-eyed. Thanks to Bill Gates, Sr., the successful people in that room remembered, at least for a little while, that none of us succeeds on our own. We are all in this together.