Wealth Belongs To All Of Us, Not Just The Rich

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Like Bill Gates, George Soros, Warren Buffett and H. Ross Perot, but not as lofty, I was once called a “self-made man.” I was an entrepreneur who had co-founded over forty businesses in my career and had accumulated wealth that put me well within the top 0.01 of 1%. If people had something good to say about me, they would say I was a “marketing genius” and that I had the “Midas touch”; everything I touched turned to gold.

One afternoon I was signing some paychecks when I noticed how many people would only be paid  $20,000 in a year. I would “earn” the same amount in an hour. Why me? Was my effort really worth that much more? Wasn’t I really the same person that had worked as a janitor while attending college? Being a CEO and co-owner of a business certainly wasn’t any harder or riskier than being a janitor; if anything, being the boss left a lot more time for fun.

The truth of how the system works became startlingly clear to me one day. We had been planning to convert a golf course from public use to member-only private club status. With an immediate profit of $15 million and a total profit of $45 million over some decades, we were going to have to pay a lot of income tax. Like General Electric or Apple or most every big company, we didn’t want to pay any tax if we could avoid it. Studying the 76,000 page IRS Tax Code, our tax lawyers found a specific interpretation that would create an exemption for our private club. The whole transaction would be tax free. My wealthy forbearers  had gone before me and rigged the system, enabling me to avoid $15 million in income tax. The US taxpayers – ordinary people – would have to make up the shortfall.

As I reflected on this I found that everything I had was a gift of the system. First of all, I was a white male, with all the privilege that comes with that. I received a free education from a world-respected university paid for by the taxpayers of California (education used to be free in California). I even had a mother that could lend me a year’s wages to start one of my first businesses. I had cities and counties that would give me zoning and permit entitlements to turn a few hundred thousand dollars of raw land into hundreds of millions of dollars of recreational community subdivisions. I traveled on roads I didn’t pay for and used the country’s legal system to bash competitors before they could start. I was not just the inheritor and beneficiary of the rich people that had gone before me, of those that had skewed and rigged the rules and prepared the way, but also of every single person that had allowed it to happen. My fortune was built from riches plundered from the earth and watered by the blood, sweat and tears of everyone that helped to make me rich, not just my employees, suppliers and customers, but the whole society.

Thanks everyone.

The thank you is sincere but it might sound a bit hollow to your ears. Thank you doesn’t really seem like a lot to say when you have accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars and most people have very little money to fall back on. Imagine eating at a sumptuous private banquet every night that the whole society has paid for, while most people are too stressed from overwork and worry to do more than grab some fast food on the way home and others can only hope to find some moldy food in a dumpster. There is no fairness in that. No equality. No justice. Indeed, it is shameful.

Recognizing that the wealth was created by the society, not by me, meant that I held riches that were not mine but belonged to the people and to the Earth. My first reaction was guilt, but all that did was make the thousand dollar bottles of wine go down faster. My second reaction was sorrow and eventually that made me change my life. I couldn’t go on as I had. I turned my back on wealth. I lost it, I spent it like water and finally I gave it all away. I have never been happier.

There are two lessons I have learned.

The first is that some rich people will give the wealth back. Hundreds of very rich people have already signed pledges to give half of all their wealth away when they die. Some, like me, have already returned 100% of their fortunes. Many more can.

The second lesson is that the great concentrations of wealth come from the society. The society creates it. The society can un-create it. Thousands are organizing for change already and many more will. We have to because the concentration of wealth is reaching levels unheard of since the Gilded Age and the Great Depression. Twenty Americans now own equal to half the people. The result is that one American is dying from poverty related factors every 36 seconds. The cries of the people go unheard in a government ruled by the rich few. The desire of the people to confront environmental and social justice problems counts statistically for zero in a Congress that has been controlled by the wealthy for decades. The very life of the planet is in jeopardy. The stranglehold of unfettered extreme wealth must be eliminated. The wealthy must share.

The wealth of the rich derives from the society; it is the product of the people. The rich control the media, the schools and universities, the health system, the courts, the police, the military and certainly the government. But we are the schoolteachers, the policemen, the students, the soldiers, the journalists, the mechanics, the book-keepers, the lawyers and the farmers…the rich rely on us. They rely on our cooperation. They are nothing without us. As Martin Luther King said, “a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent”. It is time to stand up. We all can share the wealth.

Keywords: Inequality, wealth, nonviolence, revolution, income, poverty, civil resistance

Dariel Garner was a member of the wealthiest 0.01 of 1%. He is the inspiration for Billionaire Buddha, a novel by Rivera Sun about a man who had incredible riches, turned his back on wealth and found everything worth living for. He speaks, holds workshops on wealth and income inequality and blogs at riverasun.com. You can reach him by email at dariel@riverasun.com.

  • Dave Jones

    It’s not RE_Distribution that we seek, it is the end of the profit system. That way allocation and renumeration can be done democratically with the social good in mind.

  • My favorite biblical quote:

    “The LORD will enter into judgment with the ancients of his people, and the princes thereof: for ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” –King James Bible

  • Bob Saenz

    Who do you propose to create wealth to be shared by the dumpster
    divers, another dumpster diver? Get real. The creators of wealth create jobs
    and taxes revenues for governments to build roads and schools that you use to
    create taxes and that’s the way economies work. If you want to give your wealth
    away that’s you right. But first you should understand how economies work.
    Governments understand very well and that’s why you received their help.
    Nothing is given without a reason. It’s
    called economics and that’s why it works the way it does. Communism has failed
    over and over again because people like you don’t understand economics, taxes and
    especially human behavior.

  • DHFabian

    It’s not the very rich who trouble me. It’s the fact of, and the thinking behind, those in the middle who rail against allowing a crumb of America’s collective wealth to trickle down. It’s not the wealth of the richest — wealth beyond what few of us can even picture in our minds — that they rail against. They shrug when they hear of multi-billion dollar “grants” being given to rich corporations. It’s the very thought of a penny going to the “useless poor” that enrages them.

    It’s something different from greed. There is real contempt and resentment, hatred for reasons that I don’t understand. But I suspect that in the backs of their minds, they are aware of just how thin line is between our celebrated working class and the homeless. In the backs of their minds, they can see their own faces in the desperately poor, and this enrages them.

  • DHFabian

    The very concepts of “empathy” and “the common good” were rooted out of our culture by the end of the 1980s. Who today doesn’t believe that our deregulated capitalism is so successful, that everyone is able to work and there are jobs for all, therefore no need for poverty relief? Our poverty crisis IS the proof of the grave shortcomings of our current system, and as long as we continue to disregard it, it won’t be possible to change our system, ending rule by the richest few and rebuilding the country.

    Our former welfare aid wasn’t ended because “we can’t afford it.”
    The primary welfare program, AFDC, used a mere 6% of the budget at its highest, way back in the 1970s. Aid for our poor was ended “for the principle of it.” Today’s calls for “changing the system” are made with a
    focus on redistributing some of the wealth from the rich to those who
    are still in the middle class, easing some of the stresses of middle
    class life.

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  • Dariel Garner

    There is so much truth in what you say and so much more to say.
    I think of much of our culture as being based on fear that perpetuates a cycle of abuser and abused and results in hierarchy, domination and, of course, capitalism.
    I believe we are all culpable, rich, poor, in-between, either as aggressors, as those that acquiesce or as compliant victims and that with that realization comes the responsibility to change. We are fortunate to live in a time where the system is failing so quickly that the ability to change is hammering our doors wherever we look. We are being pushed, pulled and propelled into a new world…We just must see that it is made new and as honest, whole and equitable for all life. We don’t really a choice. To continue supporting a system that is killing us and the planet is suicide.
    Great fun on the horizon.

  • Dariel Garner

    You have me beat there.. I have known many rich people and I have never met a single one that felt their duty was to create jobs or pay taxes. Indeed, I have to admit that everyone that I have ever known of the wealthy class, myself included, would always hire as few people as humanly possible and avoid every tax they could. That may be why statistically most jobs are created by small business not by the wealthy.

    Contrary to simplistic labor supply and demand models encountered in beginning economics courses, I do know that one of the best studied phenomena in management is that very few people are motivated by money, that most are motivated by pride, prestige and other factors and that is universal across all professions and income levels. Personally, I was always amazed that people would work as cheaply as they did. But then again, I would have worked for a modest wage too; I enjoyed the work.

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  • Bob Saenz

    Friedman and Hayek were not beginners nor can you say they were simplistic. The question I
    have for you is, assuming the alternative is Communism, who is going to feed
    the millions that are going to be unemployed when you close down the empires.
    Who do you expect to feed you now that you have given away all your wealth?

    The reason
    people will work for so little is because the wealthy have sent the good jobs
    overseas and left the government to pick up the shortfall. 50% of workers are
    on food stamps. We are headed towards a Socialist style government because of
    our weak policies in congress towards bad capitalist behavior. No doubt things
    like the Panama Papers go on all the time but there will always be a few bad
    actors. Given a free hand, Capitalism is bad. That’s the fault of a few weak
    congress and can’t compare to the atrocities that Communism would commit.

    History has
    shown that the poor have never been as well off as under Capitalism. The lack
    of job creation is the fault of weak congress and the demographic changes
    coming our way. You may not have created many jobs in your day but you affected
    the velocity of money at least.

    If you want
    to be a champion for the poor you should become an honest politician even though
    you may only serve one term due to your honesty. Edward R. Murrow once said “A
    nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” I would add “no matter who’s
    in charge.”

  • Dariel Garner

    Because someone is against capitalism does not mean they are for communism. I am against capitalism simply because 1.) it is impossible to achieve free markets of equality in knowledge, capital, access, etc.,a fundamental underpinning of theoretical capitalism, 2.) externalities both social and environmental are ignored leading to the eventual death of the people and the planet, and 3.) because of maximization of individual utility measured in a priced monetary environment wealth will always concentrate and that leads to the death spiral of society.(referencing Piketty)
    There are many other alternatives all of which stress life affirming characteristics, democracy, caring, sharing etc. You might want to check out http://neweconomy.net/about for ideas. If you are a capitalist business person you might also consider gifting (or even selling) your business to your employees and customers when you retire. There are plenty of tax incentives to do that .

  • kevinzeese

    So, when a public school opens and hires administrators, teachers, janitors, bus drivers etc. aren’t they creating jobs?

    When a government builds infrastructure, they also create jobs.

    When people come together and create a worker owned business that they manage and share the wealth in, they create jobs.

    And, why is the difference communism vs. capitalism. There are so many alternatives in between those two broad categories that you miss with that two choice description. In fact, most economies are a mix of different approaches.

  • Bob Saenz

    I believe in the saying “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. We agree in many ways. Communism corrupts and so does Capitalism. Capitalism however, seems to allow the punishment and removal of absolute power. I have doubts that a centralized government would ever go away peacefully. I would agree that we need worker owned enterprises as well as solely owned corporations and may the best man win. I certainly don’t know the true answer. I have made and lost several fortunes. But Capitalism allows us to start over and go as high as we desire. We have the freedom to fail and prosper as we are able.

    No person is the same. My journey was so invigorating to me that I tried over again and finally made it. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Not everyone has the desire to take a chance. We are not all created to desire success. But I cannot imagine me going to work every day to the same old grind as I have done before. Many of my family and friends are fine with that. Not me. But I don’t want limits coming from my government. I see you point too. And you are free to do what you will. That’s what I love about freedom. A centralized government would ruin that. We just need to be involved in our government on a daily basis lest we lose our right to be free to fail, succeed or follow along. I have worked since I was 13 years old and put myself through college working in a grocery store. I loved every minute of it. God save our freedom go choose.

  • David Becket

    No it doesn’t. No one owes you anything unless you earn it. Bill Gates created a product that benefits millions of people. You’ve done nothing but complain on your silly little blog.