Abigail Disney did the math.
Last year, when Bob Iger, the CEO of Walt Disney Co., earned a bonus that brought his total compensation to $65.6 million, she discovered that he could have awarded a 15 percent raise to everyone who worked at Disneyland and still pocketed $10 million.
The independent filmmaker and activist — and an heir to the mass media and entertainment empire — offered that observation on Thursday in a conversation on “humane capitalism” hosted by the Fast Company Impact Council. Disney, 59, called Iger’s pay “insane,” explaining that her view has been shaped by encounters with Disneyland employees in Anaheim, Calif., where reduced benefits have left them straining to pay for basics, such as medicine.
“So there’s a point at which there’s just too much going around the top of the system into this class of people who — I’m sorry this is radical — have too much money,” she said.
The criticism set off a flurry of commentary about corporate responsibility in a moment of growing concern about wealth inequality — even about the very sustainability of capitalism. Her perspective is notable not only because of her famous last name but because of what her name conveys about the benefit she derives from the system she is criticizing. She is the granddaughter of Roy Disney, who founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio along with his brother Walt Disney in 1923.
A similar discussion unfolded when it was revealed last week that Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and presidential candidate, is now among the millionaires he castigates.
But Sanders, who is leading some early polls of Democratic voters, is not the only White House aspirant to take on the wealthy, in a sign that the view articulated by Disney is not as radical as she might think. Earlier this year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts and another presidential contender, unveiled a plan to tax the wealth of the richest 0.1 percent of Americans. She calls it the “ultra-millionaire tax” and claims it would generate $2.75 trillion over 10 years.
A Walt Disney spokesman defended the company’s treatment of its employees in a statement to Fast Company, a business magazine.
“Disney has made historic investments to expand the earning potential and upward mobility of our workers, implementing a starting hourly wage of $15 at Disneyland that’s double the federal minimum wage, and committing up to $150 million for a groundbreaking education initiative that gives our hourly employees the opportunity to obtain a college or vocational degree completely free of charge,” the statement read. Iger’s earnings in 2018 were tied to performance as well as to a stock grant associated with Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox, the company also said.
In an apparent rebuttal to the company’s explanation, the filmmaker elaborated on her thinking in a lengthy Twitter thread on Sunday.
She emphasized in particular the gap separating Iger’s pay and that of the company’s employees. According to Equilar, a California-based company that tracks executive compensation, Iger made 1,424 times the amount that a median employee made. That was the fifth-largest ratio separating a CEO from a regular employee, among 100 companies studied by Equilar. The greatest gulf was at ManpowerGroup, a Milwaukee-based staffing firm.
“Pointing out the incongruity of pay at the top and pay at the bottom provokes a reaction because it so violates of our innate sense of fairness it is impossible not to wince,” Disney wrote. She argued that it was not enough simply to pay above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 — a figure, she said, that is “too low to live on.”
While praising Iger’s leadership, she said the company was not doing enough to reward those who kept it running every day. Specifically, she called on corporate executives to give employees raises, rather than one-off bonuses. A raise, she said, would dramatically improve the living standards of workers while having little to no impact on top earners. “Maybe they can’t afford a third home,” she wrote. “Or another boat.”
She stressed that her view was hers alone and did not represent a personal attack on Iger.
“I like Bob Iger. Let me be very clear: I think he’s a good man,” Disney said in her original remarks, delivered in a conversation with Howard W. Buffett, an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, and Lynn Forester de Rothschild, the founder and CEO of the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism. “But I think he’s allowing himself to go down a road that is the road everyone is going down.”
The Disney heir has tried to throw up roadblocks.
She is a member of Patriotic Millionaires, a group founded in 2010 by Morris Pearl, a former executive at the asset management corporation BlackRock, to advocate steeper taxes on the wealthy.
And in December 2017, she spoke out against the sweeping Republican tax overhaul, which included the largest one-time reduction in the corporate tax rate in U.S. history. In a video that was viewed more than 700,000 times on Twitter, Disney offered herself up as an example of the undeserving beneficiaries of the legislation.
She described how her relatives had struck gold and explained how the money they made wound up in her hands.
“They made a lot of money, they gave some of that to my dad, and my dad gave it to me,” she said. “I did not do anything to earn that money. And yet, I’m about to get a huge handout from Congress.”
She argued that the tax bill would hammer working people and rob them of health insurance while creating new avenues for her and her “friends with private jets” to avoid contributing to public coffers. This setup, she said, reflected discredited supply-side economics.
“I really hope I’ve made you angry,” she said. “You should be.”
Finally, she acknowledged her own position, opposing the interests of her class, saying, “I know it must seem strange to you that I’m speaking up about this tax bill when I have so much to gain by it. But if a democracy is just a bunch of people advocating for their own self-interest instead of the interests of the greater good, then we’re not a democracy. We’re anarchy.”
In her Twitter fusillade over the weekend, she suggested that the country might not end up careening into anarchy, another way of describing the “gauzy neo-liberal indoctrination from which we are finally (hopefully) awakening,” as she wrote.
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