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Meet the Guy Corralling Billionaires to Fight Inequality

December 9, 2016

Interview by Fran Korten

In 1986, at the age of 26, Chuck Collins, the great-grandson of meatpacking giant Oscar Mayer, gave away his trust fund. He was working on forming community land trusts for affordable housing and helping mobile-home residents pool their resources to buy their parks as cooperatives. Collins wanted to stand on the same economic ground as the people he was helping. So, much to the consternation of his parents, he gave away his fortune.

By 1995, Collins had cofounded the nonprofit advocacy group United for a Fair Economy. Later he formed Wealth for the Common Good, which recently morphed into the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of wealthy individuals who advocate a tax system that serves regular Americans. He has worked with Bill Gates Sr., Warren Buffett, members of the Rockefeller family, and others to successfully fight the repeal of the federal estate tax. He is currently a senior scholar at the Washington, D.C., policy group Institute for Policy Studies.

In his latest book, Born on Third Base, Collins tells the story of his origins and the 30-plus years he has worked to rectify economic inequality.

Collins sat down with YES! to talk about growing up with the 1 percent, his unusual approach to fighting economic inequality, and what progressives need to do under a Trump administration.

Korten: In Born on Third Base, you share some very personal things, like your shame in being from a rich enclave outside of Detroit. Was this a hard book to write?

Collins: I spent a lot of my life trying not to tell my story. Trying to just seem like “Joe Ordinary.” Now I am 57, and I might as well tell the true stories.

I grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. It’s a town that had almost entirely privatized its recreation. There were no public parks, no sidewalks, no commons. So when I wanted to have fun, I went to a private country club.

Korten: You gave away your inheritance at age 26. Why?

Collins: My parents set up a trust fund for me that paid for my education. That was a great blessing. Yet going forward, it looked like that money was going to be a barrier to making my own way. I was working for the Institute for Community Economics, helping to create community land trusts and working with mobile-home park residents to buy their parks. Nobody knew I was the kid with the trust fund. They were incredibly generous to me. They showed me a side of solidarity between people that wasn’t what I experienced growing up. People who were not blood relatives were “all in” for each other.

Korten: But in giving away that trust fund, you gave away your safety net.

Collins: I wanted to know that my security came from community and being rooted on my own path. But I do, however, believe that having some savings is important. We live in a country where you are one divorce, one job loss, one illness away from destitution. That infects the whole culture and creates enormous stress.

I wanted to know that my security came from community and being rooted on my own path.

Even people you might think of as not having to worry about money are often worried about their children and their old age. They realize how expensive long-term care can be. In the end, wealthy families can only build a wall of money around themselves so high. Almost all of us are dependent on society for some safety net. I would like this country to be more like the Nordic countries—Denmark, Sweden, Norway—with a strong safety net for everyone.

Korten: You have an unusual approach to fighting economic inequality. While many blame the rich for their unfair advantages, your approach is to invite them in. In fact, in your new book, Born on Third Base, you ask the wealthy to “come home.” What do you mean by that?

Collins: Wealthy people are commonly disconnected from community. They don’t depend on a place. They travel. They have multiple properties in different locations. My message is to ask them to commit to one place: not a gated community, but a place where lots of people live and work. I’m saying: Bring your wealth out of the global financial casino, out of the fossil fuel energy sector, out of the offshore tax havens. Bring that wealth home and put it into the emerging new economy—community loan funds, new local enterprises—make a commitment to place and not just through philanthropy but also by paying your fair share of taxes.

What’s happening is wealthy people are withdrawing from communities. They are taking money out that used to go to pay taxes. I think about the neighborhood where I live [Boston’s Jamaica Plain]. If wealthy people had a stake in public facilities—the schools, parks, transit system—then they would bring their social capital and political clout to make the system work for everybody. So it’s not just money. It’s having that full-bodied stake in a place. When the wealthy pull out, then the upper-middle class wants to pull out, too. There’s a rush to the door. Yet most people still depend on the public services.

Korten: You have a lot of wealthy friends. How are they responding to your message?

Collins: The wealthiest 1 percent is not monolithic. There is a segment that uses their wealth and power to rig the rules to get more wealth and power. There are also people like the Patriotic Millionaires and people like Bill Gates Sr., George Soros, and Tom Steyer who are using their resources to fix the future and build equality.

Don’t forget that some of the wealthy can be potential allies.

But there’s a large segment who are not engaged. They don’t like the talk of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. They are put off by attacks on the wealthy. But they deeply grieve for what’s happening in the world. They see the inequalities and what is happening to Mother Earth. They want to find a way to relate to our movements, but they don’t know how. Communities, individuals, and organizations need to figure out how to invite the wealthy home, not just simply as checkbooks, but as whole persons. 

Korten: You’re asking the 99 percent to welcome the 1 percent in. But a lot of us don’t know anyone in the 1 percent—or at least we think we don’t.

Collins: Stereotypes of the wealthy make people think they don’t know anyone who’s wealthy. But there are wealthy people who show up at events and are a part of organizations where there are many nonwealthy people. Many are looking for something more meaningful than to plan their next vacation or dinner out. So the 99 percent need to get creative about engaging these folks and not use language that alienates them. For example, we need to distinguish between locally rooted enterprises and the couple hundred transnational corporations that are looting the planet. If we don’t make such distinctions, we unnecessarily alienate potential business allies who could be much more engaged in struggles like racial justice, building a new local economy, addressing problems like student debt and affordable housing. So my message for some of these movements is: Don’t forget that some of the wealthy can be potential allies.

Korten: In 2003, you successfully fought the Republican-led effort to repeal the estate tax. You got billionaires to speak out on the need for an estate tax. So now we have a president and a Congress that may well mount an attack on the estate tax. Do we have any hope of keeping it?

Collins: The Republicans are hell-bent on abolishing the estate tax. But the tax is one of the few existing laws that slows the concentration of wealth. The problem with the federal estate tax is there’s no constituency to defend it.

We are getting the “band back together” to defend the estate tax.

We are getting the “band back together” to defend the estate tax—pulling in the Patriotic Millionaires network. For most people, when they realize that the tax only affects couples with over $11 million, they think it is silly to abolish it.

In Washington state, the state estate tax funds the Education Legacy Trust Fund. That’s smart. When that tax was under attack, there was a constituency to defend it. So if the federal estate tax were connected to something that expanded opportunity, it might stand up better over time.

Korten: Who in your pantheon of the wealthy will be willing to speak out against moves to reduce the taxes on the wealthy?

Collins: Warren Buffett has historically stepped up. I think he will continue to do that. People like Tom Steyer, Nick Hanauer, George Zimmer, who started Men’s Wearhouse. They have been outspoken on tax issues. And we’ll engage a whole new group of wealthy people to speak out in defense of the estate tax and other tax fairness issues.

Korten: Do you think inequality was at the root of the election of Mr. Trump?

Collins: The seeds of the Trump election were planted in the late ’70s and ’80s as the great inequalities in the economy opened up. There are whole rural areas and urban corridors of this country that have become sacrifice zones, where people’s livelihoods have been destroyed.

Many of Trump’s supporters feel like the forgotten people. They feel like the coastal elites and the boom urban centers with their high-tech gizmos and rising wages have left them behind and that the political system has been captured by elites.

In Bill Clinton’s years, the Democratic Party shifted from a focus on the working class to the white-collar, educated elites. Their views on trade aligned with this. “Oh global trade, there’s winners and losers, and we’ll be mostly winners.” They left out the fine print that certain areas will become disaster zones. So after three decades that gives rise to a populist response.

Korten: I get confused by this word “populist.” Some people are calling Trump a populist. But I think of populism as being progressive.

Collins: The populist response can either be progressive—as with Bernie Sanders saying, Let’s look at how the middle-class standard of living has been destroyed by global corporations, trade policies, and the agenda of billionaires. Or it can be regressive—let’s blame the new immigrants and people of color. Donald Trump rode the wave of anger of people who feel the brunt of inequality.

If people aren’t part of a local action group, they should form one.

A polarized economy gives rise to a polarized politics. That was true a century ago in the first Gilded Age, when we had the rise of the progressive populists: They got us the income tax and the first state bank in the country and many other reforms. But there was also a huge wave of regressive populism—nativism, anti-immigrant feeling, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The progressive and regressive populisms happened at the same time.

I don’t think Donald Trump is going to fix the deep drivers of our inequalities. He’s not going to champion policies that will tax the wealthy and invest in things that will create good jobs. He’s not going to address the climate crisis, which will deepen the economic divisions. Republicans don’t really have a program to reduce inequality in America. So the pressure will keep building. Student debt will keep climbing. Homeownership will keep going down. Trump has nothing to offer on those problems.

Korten: If we’re now in a time like the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, might this be followed by a strong progressive era, as happened then?

Collins: The country could go toward a proto-fascist authoritarian state. But it could also, given the right leadership and smart social movements, become a progressive populist state. I want our social movements to become smarter about how to address deep race and class divisions and engage wealthy people to be partners in building a progressive populist majority.

Korten: A lot of progressive people are in despair right now. What should they do?

Collins: Be part of the social movements that are emerging and will emerge in the coming years. I think there’s going to be a millennial movement around student debt. There will be some new manifestation of the Occupy Wall Street movement. We have to defend communities of color and defend ourselves against the worst aspects of extractive capitalism. And at the same time build resilient communities through neighborhood associations, cooperative enterprises. And support transition towns that are creating new food systems, producing renewable energy at the local level.

If people aren’t part of a local action group, they should form one. Find four or five people, read YES! Magazine, and identify things you can do together that use the particular talents and gifts that each of us have.

To me this is the moment. People should not just sit there on the internet and read the worst. We need all hands on deck. And we need to engage people who have resources to help build an anti-racist, progressive populist movement.

Originally posted at Yes! Magazine.