Hanna Brooks Olsen writes here about the billionaires of Washington State and their clever strategies to stay very rich whileappearing to be philanthropists.

They give to the poor. They give toworking people. They give to the homeless.

But they make sure that Washington State has the most regressive Taxes in the nation, which protects their fortunes.

Because when billionaires do anything for anyone else, it’s cause for celebration.

We see this a lot out here in Washington state, a place that is uncommonly kind to people with ample wealth. This is not hyperbole; a report released in October found that, once again, the Evergreen State has the country’s most regressive tax structure. The richest percentile of residents — those who earn more than half a million dollars annually — pay three percent of their income in annual state and local taxes. Meanwhile, those who earn under $24,000 per year — many of whom live below the poverty line — shell out 17.8 percent.

This makes it difficult for lawmakers to tackle the big problems; for over a decade, Washington has struggled to fund basic education and provide critical mental health care to those in need. Every year, elected officials head into session wondering how they’re going to pay for new roads and transportation upgrades when property taxes are maxed out.

But this structure is not an accident. It is by design, crafted and upheld by the people it benefits. Washington state is home to a tax structure that benefits the wealthy because, and not in spite of, the fact that Washington state is also home to the nation’s wealthiest men.

And yet, those same wealthy men — and everyone who carries water for them — will tell you that they are doing everything they can and that anything we receive from them, collectively, should be praised.

Washington is proud of its billionaire population, and many people work hard to retain them; after Amazon announced that it was seeking a second (or, now, a second and third) location, lawmakers penned op-eds decrying Seattle’s “anti-business” climate as the reason the online vending behemoth might want to explore other options and made substantial political offers to try to get them to keep growing at break-neck pace. After all, these billionaires give money. They’re philanthropists. We would be sunk without them.

And yet, the same men — men like Bezos and the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen — who receive awards and accolades for their community involvement, for their substantial role in Washington’s booming economy, are also the ones who have piled cash reserves while the state government starved. Washington needs this philanthropy precisely because the wealthy don’t pay taxes.
The bar for the behavior of billionaires feels precariously low.

If you know just one single thing about Paul Allen, it’s probably that he had a lot of money and that he gave away a lot of money. Throughout his life, he donated about $2 billion to charitable causes and organizations he founded. But he also spent a lot of money, mostly quietly, to keep his money.
According to MIT researchers, more than 46 percent of Americans die with less than $10,000 to their name.

Just a few weeks before his death, Allen made headlines for donating $100,000 to a political action committee designed to retain Republican control of the House. He also, in the last several years, made substantial donations to Republican candidates, the majority of whom have backed the Trump administration’s tax plan. And the year he made headlines for joining the “Giving Pledge” to donate 10 percent of his income, he also donated heartily to defeat an initiative that would have created an income tax in Washington. That initiative—to increase taxes on the rich—was led by another billionaire, the father of his one-time business partner, Bill Gates Sr.

It worked. The campaign was defeated, and, to this day, Washington state has no income tax, no capital gains tax, and gaping loopholes for things that rich people buy, like jet planes. The bulk of tax money in Washington comes from sales taxes, property taxes, and a business tax that is woefully regressive, particularly to small businesses.

As such, our billionaires keep getting richer. At his death, Allen was worth an estimated $26 billion — an astronomical amount in a nation where, according to MIT researchers, more than 46 percent of Americans die with less than $10,000 to their name, and most have less than $1,000 in savings. Allen owned two yachts, one of which cost $100 million.