For some of the rich, budget and tax battles bring worries — of paying too little
The Patriotic Millionaire is standing in his $2.5 million home, next to a granite-topped kitchen island big enough to pitch a tent on. Outside, the rain is pattering his pool and his fishpond.
He is worrying aloud about how he might lose it all.
“It is going to be really bad for rich people,” said Charlie Fink, 51, a former AOL executive, imagining an American financial collapse that could wipe out his wealth. “It’s going to be [bad] for everybody. But most people are living close to the bone anyway. So they have less to lose.”
In another part of Fairfax County, the man who teaches Fink to swing a golf club is not nearly as panicked. Tom Melideo’s country club is not hurting for members, and many of them have government contracting jobs that don’t seem likely to disappear soon.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about” the future of the economy, said Melideo, 45, the club’s PGA head pro. “I’m too busy working.”
Last month, when President Obama called for increasing taxes on the rich, his Republican adversaries called it “class warfare” — an attempt to turn a recession-plagued middle class against the rich.
But, in the orbit of one Fairfax millionaire, the reality is different. The middle-class people Fink knows, the golf pro and the personal trainer, are fairly confident about their futures.
It’s the millionaire who’s worried. Fink has joined a group called Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, arguing, Buffett-like, that the government should raise his taxes — because he’s scared of what will happen if it doesn’t.
“It’s maddening to just sit here in . . . Virginia and let the world unravel,” Fink said. “Which is a huge, huge threat to my personal wealth.”
At a town hall that Obama held in Mountain View, Calif., on Sept. 26, a member of the same millionaires’ group asked, “Would you please raise my taxes?” Doug Edwards, who got rich at Google, said that he worries for the future of federal student loans, infrastructure projects and job-training programs if the government does not obtain new revenue.
The millionaires’ group was founded last year, to press for the end of a George W. Bush-era tax cut for people making more than $1 million a year. Made up of both Democrats and Republicans, the group includes only about 200 millionaires, in a country where an estimated 3.1 million people have wealth greater than $1 million.
‘We’re doing okay’
Clearly, Fink may not represent the bulk of those 3.1 million: Billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), for instance, has criticized Obama’s proposal as “theatrics.” But in Fink’s small orbit, the guy with the most worries is the guy with the most — period.
“We’re doing okay, because we’re around the Beltway,” said Melideo, who gives Fink lessons at Fairfax’s International Country Club. Business at the golf shop dipped a bit when the recession began, but now it’s improving. The club attracted more than 40 new members recently.
Melideo, a slim, bald man with an easy manner, doesn’t agree that millionaires ought to be taxed more. He thinks the economy would benefit if the rich could keep that money and spend it. But he also doesn’t worry that a little extra tax on the wealthy would kneecap his business.
“If it’s that close to driving them away from the entire club, they probably would have dropped it by now,” Melideo said.
The personal trainer who visits Fink twice a week, John O’Connor, is equally confident about his own future. His clients pay $50 to $75 for a one-hour session,
O’Connor actually agrees that the rich should pay a greater share in taxes. But he’s not worried that a little extra would cause clients to replace him with a Stairmaster. In fact, he thinks it might help his business if the rich had a little less.
“The people who have the disposable income for me, have disposable income for vacations,” he said. If they traveled less, O’Connor said, they might hire him more.
Class has always been an uncertain political weapon in this country, tempered by the American gift for optimism: If the plan is to one day be rich yourself, there is a disinclination to hate those who already are.
This year, a Gallup poll showed that Americans feel roughly the same way about the rich now as they did in 2007, before the recession. Only 31 percent said there were “too many” rich people. And more than 60 percent said there were too few or the right amount.
‘I have to pull my weight’
What’s changed — at least among the Patriotic Millionaires — is their sense that they are being treated too well.
“It’s just — it’s unfair. And I just — I can’t be a part of that. I have to pull my weight,” said Scott Wallace, one of six members with D.C. ties. He lives in South Africa most of the time but serves on the board of a family charity based in the District. “It can’t fall on the shoulders of the working class.”
But others felt something more basic — and more frightening. Joe Kaempfer, 64, a real estate executive with a home in McLean, said he feared that the government’s fiscal problems would someday unleash dangerous forces in society.
“My grandchildren will be murdered in their beds. That’s when class warfare will happen,” Kaempfer said. “The children of the rich will be murdered in their beds by the starving.”
He, like others in the group, has called specifically for Obama and Congress to end the Bush-era tax break for those making more than $1 million a year — quickly.
For Fink, the former AOL executive, the big concern isn’t murderous mobs. It’s a financial catastrophe that turns him back into what he was a few years ago: a middle-class guy with worries about his job and his retirement.
Fink is bald and energetic. He has an art-school degree. He made his money in a 15-year climb through Disney, AOL and other companies — big offers, stock options, corporate acquisitions. Now he considers himself only at the lowest of the three levels of the Truly Rich. There are the guys who own airstrips. Below them are the guys who own planes.
Below them are guys like him.
“I’m the guy who doesn’t have to work anymore,” Fink says. He is now founder and artistic director of a foundation that promotes musical theater.
But he still worries.
“Believe me, being rich is so nice. It is so nice. It is way better than being middle class,” he said.