The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An angry historian ripped the ultrarich over tax avoidance at Davos. Then one was given the mic.

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman railed against the world’s wealthiest business people skating taxes during a panel at The Davos World Economic Forum Jan. 25. (Video: Reuters)

Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian and author who studies poverty and global inequality, had a first this year: being invited to the world’s most prominent gathering of wealthy people — the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Switzerland — as a speaker.

But after arriving in Davos, the small town in the Swiss Alps where the conference is held, the 30-year-old felt there was something missing from the conversations he had been having over the course of the week.

“I had this uncomfortable feeling,” he said in a phone interview. “Could I really talk about my book and basic income but not address the elephant in the room?”

The elephant was the issue of taxes, or, more specifically, how wealthy people around the world work to avoid paying them, Bregman said. The issue has shot to international prominence in recent years after disclosures such as the Panama Papers, amid tensions over rising levels of global inequality. And it has galvanized the political conversation in the United States after a congresswoman from Queens — perhaps you can guess which one — floated the idea of returning the United States to a country where incomes above $10 million were taxed at high rates.

But Bregman believed there wasn’t enough discussion about it at Davos. So he decided to say something during the panel discussion about income inequality he was on, hosted by Time magazine on Friday. He started by saying that he found the conference’s mix of indulgence and global problem-solving a bit bewildering.

“I mean 1,500 private jets have flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about how we’re wrecking the planet," he said. "I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency. But then almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance. And of the rich just not paying their fair share. It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one is allowed to speak about water.

“This is not rocket science,” he said. “We can talk for a very long time about all these stupid philanthropy schemes, we can invite Bono once more, but, come on, we got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes — all the rest is bulls---, in my opinion.”

The discussion drew a sharp response from former Yahoo chief financial officer Ken Goldman, who was at the forum. Goldman stood up to ask a question — it was really more of a comment, really — to critique the discussion about taxes.

“I have to say, honestly, this is a very one-sided panel,” Goldman said, noting the United States' low unemployment rate. “We’ve actually reduced poverty around the world; no one’s talking about that at all.”

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Another panelist, Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima, forcefully rebutted Goldman’s remarks, pointing to the story of a worker named Dolores from a poultry processing plant. Dolores, she said, told Oxfam that she and her co-workers had to wear diapers to work because they were prevented from taking bathroom breaks while working. A ride-hailing app driver she had ridden with recently in Kenya told her he could only afford to share a room with two other drivers; they slept in turns.

“This is in the richest country in the world,” Byanyima said of the United States. “Those are the jobs we’ve been told about, that ‘globalization is bringing jobs.’ The quality of the jobs matter. It matters! These are not jobs of dignity.”

Bregman’s and Byanyima’s remarks have since reverberated around the world, after being captured in a short video published by the trending video site NowThis News. The video was viewed more than 6 million times, yet another indication that conversations about income inequality — and what were formerly seen as radical solutions to address it — are striking a nerve with the wider public. Another Davos panel, hosted by The Washington Post’s Heather Long, was also punctuated by a debate about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s taxation proposal.

In a telephone interview, Byanyima said she has been wanting to bring up the story of the poultry workers but had long been discouraged from telling it. She has been told not to bring it up in front of political officials, she said.

“It’s a story that makes people uncomfortable,” she said. But she said that Goldman’s speech had made it relevant.

“I couldn’t take that. That sounded so out of touch and insensitive to the millions of people who are just a medical bill away from sinking in poverty,” she said. “So I had to tell this ‘Davos man,’ give him a wake-up call, tell him that they have rigged the economy in their favor. They are getting super profits. Meanwhile they are pushing down wages, taking away workers rights, and they are dodging paying their fair share of taxes — that’s why they are super rich.”

Byanyima said she had been attending the forum for about five years to help publicize Oxfam’s yearly study on economic inequality. (It found this year that the wealth of 2,200 billionaires increased by $900 billion last year, while wealth declined for the bottom half of the world population. It found that the richest 26 people in the world own as much wealth as half the world’s poorest population).

But this year was the first where it felt as though the issue was really sinking in, Byanyima said. She described being at one of the conference’s off-the-record meetings earlier in the week in which a “corporate bigwig” — she declined to say who — exhorted the crowd around him to help find a fix for the many issues raised by global inequality, for self-preservation, if nothing else.

He said that “if we don’t solve the problem, they are going to destroy our democracies and solve the problem on the street,” Byanyima said. “There is fear; there is an understanding that this is unsustainable.”

Goldman, who was named one of the 25 highest-paid CFOs in the country by Business Insider in 2015, said that he had not watched the video of the panel but had heard from friends and associates that he had been featured in it.

“I have a lot of friends that said, ‘Good for you,’ ” he said in a phone interview. “I wanted to talk about more than just taxes. And all, it was a panel that talked about raising taxes.”

He disputed Byanyima’s rebuttal to his remarks about low unemployment.

“How do you create good jobs? You need to be educated,” Goldman said. “I was educated. Everything I got was earned. Nothing was given to me. No hand-me-downs. I earned it. How did I earn it? I went to school; I earned my way up.”

He added: “I can tell you, driving an Uber is better than no job."

A self-described Republican, he said he was wary of unintended consequences from proposals from officials such as Ocasio-Cortez to raise taxes but said that he supported recent efforts in states such as California to raise the minimum wage. And he said he welcomed a larger debate about how best to address income inequality.

“I think it’s an important issue of our times,” he said. “We should debate it. What are the solutions? I think we gotta look at all the different parameters. Taxes may be one element to it.”

Billionaire chief executive Michael Dell reacted Jan. 23 to a proposal put forth by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to tax millionaires. (Video: The Washington Post)

Bregman said he had been studying inequality for years and was glad to see it becoming a wider part of the political conversation around the world. He said he had gained a substantial number of Twitter followers since the video took off on Monday — about 20,000 — and hoped the conversation he had contributed to would continue.

“It’s very exciting; the zeitgeist is shifting right now," he said. “People are talking about subjects that were almost forbidden.”

He predicted that proposals to tax the upper incomes of the ultra-wealthy such as those floated by Ocasio-Cortez, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would probably make their way to European politics.

“As we always say: When someone in America sneezes, we catch a cold, as well,” he said. “That’s going to be very influential.”

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