The New Yorker published a very interesting article about an organization that calls itself Patriotic Millionaires. They want to pay higher taxes because they believe that inequality is a blight on our society. The focus of the article is Abigail Disney, who developed a social conscience in college and has deepened her commitment to social and economic justice.


Abigail Disney remembers the moment, two decades ago, when she no longer wanted to fly on her family’s private plane. Disney is the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, who founded the Disney companywith his younger brother, Walt, in 1923, and her father was a longtime senior executive there. Abigail’s parents owned a Boeing 737, one of the largest private-aircraft models on the market, and they let her use it for family trips. For many years, when Abigail was raising her four children, she would take the plane to Ireland, to visit her mother’s castle. The plane “was like a flying playpen,” Abigail told me recently. “I’ve known the pilot since I was a teen-ager.” One day, when her children were older, she took an overnight flight from California to New York, where she lives. She was travelling alone, but there was a full staff on duty to cater to her needs. As she got into the queen-size bed and secured the safety belt that stretched across the mattress, preparing to sleep for the next few hours, an unpleasant feeling came over her. “I couldn’t help thinking about the carbon footprint of it, and all the fuel,” she said. “It just felt so wrong.”

It wasn’t the first time that Abigail, who inherited part of her grandfather’s fortune, had experienced discomfort about her wealth and how little she had done to deserve it. As a child, she would go with her grandfather to Disneyland, where she was treated as a special guest. “He loved taking us to the front of the line,” she said. She would hang her head as they marched past other families who had been waiting for rides in the hot sun. “I’d say, ‘Grandpa, they hate us,’ ” she recalled. “And he’d say, ‘I worked so hard all those years so you could go to the front of the line.’ ” As a young adult, Disney forged her own life in New York City, first as a mother and later as a documentary-film producer. She eventually stopped flying on the private plane, although it took a year or two. (“These things are hard to give up,” she told me.) And she started advocating for peace and women’s equality.

In 2011, she joined an organization called the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of wealthy Americans who are concerned about rising income inequality and who speak out in favor of policies traditionally considered to be antithetical to their economic interests. She began to make public appearances and videos in which she promoted higher taxes on the wealthy. She told me that she realized that the luxuries she and her family enjoyed were really a way of walling themselves off from the world, which made it easier to ignore certain economic realities. “Coming face to face with it feels fucking awful,” she said. “That’s why the wealthy have the private planes and the bottle service in the back and the limousines with the tinted windows.”

In March, 2018, she received a Facebook message from a custodian at Disneyland who was asking for help. He said that many workers there were barely able to survive on what they were paid, and that their union was fighting for a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage, without success. The local press had recently published several sensational reports about Disneyland, including a story about a sixty-one-year-old night janitor at the Disneyland Resort who had died, alone, in her car, where she had been living. That year, the Walt Disney Company had reported almost thirteen billion dollars in profit; the night janitor was estimated to have been earning thirteen or fourteen dollars an hour.

“I spent almost a month sitting on it, thinking, What can I do?” Abigail told me. She is a shareholder in the company but has never had a formal role there, and was wary of interfering in the family business. “It was hard for me to decide that I could take this on,” she said. To learn more about what was happening, she flew to Los Angeles and met with fifteen or so Disneyland employees at the Anaheim office of Workers United Local 50, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union that represents about seventy-five hundred food-service workers at Disney theme parks. “I have a healthy skepticism about the way that unions characterize things, so I was not inclined to simply accept whatever was told to me,” she said.

Abigail had told the union representatives that she didn’t want her visit to attract publicity, so some of the workers were summoned to the office without being told whom they were meeting. They sat in a circle and talked about their economic struggles. A full-time hair stylist named Rebekah Pedersen told Abigail that she, too, had often slept in her car. Abigail recalled that a thirty-year veteran of the park said that she had also recently been homeless for a time, and that some of the workers said that they were on food stamps. (A spokesperson for the company issued a statement saying, “We strongly disagree with this characterization of our employees and their experience at Disney.” The company also said, “Disney has made significant investments to expand the earning potential and upward mobility of our employees.”)

The president of Workers United Local 50, Chris Duarte, who attended the meeting, told me that he could see that Abigail wasstruggling to process what she was learning. “She didn’t want to trash her family name,” he said. “The company does a lot of good things. But to have this ugly thing in the closet—I know it bothered her.” Abigail spent the next few weeks working on an e-mail to Bob Iger, the company’s C.E.O. The Walt Disney Company is one of the largest and most profitable media businesses in the world, and in 2018 Iger, who that year announced a new streaming service and who had directed the company’s acquisitions of Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox’s film and TV assets, received almost sixty-six million dollars in total compensation. That was more than fourteen hundred times the median pay of a company employee. Although some in the business world say that Iger deserves his staggering salary because of the company’s financial success, Abigail found the pay ratio disturbing. “It is something that the whole country is engaged in—shaving every benefit off workers’ lives, making sure they are living as close to the bone as is humanly possible,” she said. (Iger has pointed out that his salary was unusually high in 2018 because of a one-time stock award that he was granted after the acquisition of 21st Century Fox and as part of an agreement that he would remain at Disney for three years. His annual compensation was $39.3 million. Disney has defended Iger’s compensation package, saying that he has “delivered exceptional value for the company, its shareholders and employees.”)

In the U.S., executive compensation has increased, on average, by nine hundred and forty per cent since 1978, according to one estimate; during the same period, worker pay has risen twelve per cent. Income inequality hasn’t been this extreme since the nineteen-twenties. A recent study by the economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that, as a result of cuts to estate and corporate taxes, as well as the 2017 G.O.P. tax bill, the four hundred richest Americans pay a lower over-all tax rate than any other group in the country. In a Times Op-Ed, Saez and Zucman wrote, “This is the tax system of a plutocracy.”

In Abigail’s message to Iger, she argued that the company would be damaged by reports that some employees were being paid so little. The press had been reporting rumors that Iger was thinking about running for President, and he had said in an interview that America was “gravely in need of optimism.” (Oprah Winfrey publicly told Iger that she would canvass for him in Iowa.) This was an opportunity, Abigail said, for him to set an example by offering more generous wages. She wrote, “You could become the leader of the most ethical multi-billion-dollar multi-national business the world has ever known.” Iger responded a few days later, thanking her for her e-mail. He said that he was proud that there hadn’t been any work stoppages during his tenure, and he suggested that she follow up with the human-resources department.

In June, 2018, a ballot initiative that proposed raising the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour was introduced in the city of Anaheim. It would apply to all employers in the city, the largest of which, by far, was Disneyland. In July, four months before the midterm elections, when the ballot measure was up for a vote, the company agreed to increase hourly wages to fifteen dollars for about ten thousand of Disneyland’s thirty thousand unionized workers, and to raise the wages of its nonunion workers as well. (The measure passed.) Still, Abigail felt dissatisfied. Earlier this year, after some public comments that she had made about Iger’s salary—she called it “insane”—were widely circulated, she decided to go further. On Easter, while taking a train to visit her college-age son, she posted twenty-two messages on Twitter criticizing the disparities at the company. “Let me [be] very clear,” the first one read. “I like Bob Iger. I do NOT speak for my family but only for myself. . . . But by any objective measure a pay ratio over a thousand is insane.” She went on, “What on earth would be wrong with shifting some of the profits—the fruits of these employees’ labor—to some folks other than those at the top?” Within two hours, she saw that her tweets had been viewed half a million times. “By that night, it was at three million,” she said. “And I thought, O.K., something’s happening.”

She began thinking about how to translate the viral moment into something more lasting. “It’s really easy to reduce someone like me to a crazy rich girl,” she said. “I needed to find a way to maintain my credibility and not seem like I had an axe to grind about Disney.” Since then, she has testified before Congress about worker pay, worked with activist groups fighting for more progressive economic policies, and given dozens of speeches and interviews. Abigail told me that she hopes that the C.E.O.s of other companies are paying attention. “Have you seen the movie ‘Caddyshack’?” she asked. “There’s a gopher, and he pops up every so often.” She added, “I’m the gopher. So I’ll continue to pop up periodically and be the bane of their existence, because I don’t want them to feel comfortable. They are participating in a social and economic process that is destroying actual human lives. And I’m just not going to go along with it. Especially not with my name attached.”

Disney is one of the highest-profile figures in the Patriotic Millionaires, which now has more than two hundred members in thirty-four states: technology entrepreneurs, software engineers, Wall Street investors, industrialists, and inheritors of family fortunes. Although Abigail is best known for her criticisms of the Disney company, the group’s mission was initially a simple idea endorsed by a half-dozen rich people: “Please raise our taxes.” The members now have the broader goal of pressuring their wealthy peers to confront what they believe are the destructive effects of trickle-down economics—the idea, which has driven U.S. policy decisions for several decades and has largely been debunked, that reducing taxes on businesses and the wealthy will benefit low- and middle-income workers. Members of the Patriotic Millionaires lobby lawmakers and affluent individuals to instead support policies that would, for instance, increase the minimum wage and raise taxes on corporations and the rich. “If you want to change social norms, you’ve got to be out there going public about your beliefs,” Eric Schoenberg, a former investment banker, said, during a breakfast that the group held in New York, in October.

Patriotic Millionaires was founded by Erica Payne, a political strategist who had worked on Bill Clinton’s inaugural committee and had served as the deputy national finance director for the Democratic National Committee before getting an M.B.A. from Wharton. She has long, dark hair and a gleaming smile, and she speaks at a high velocity. She was a cheerleading champion in high school, in North Carolina, and proudly displays a trophy from that era in the Patriotic Millionaires’ main office, in downtown Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from the White House. In 2010, Republican tax cuts were about to expire, and it had become clear that President Barack Obama was going to give in to lobbying pressure and extend the cuts, even for wealthy people. “I thought that was horrifying,” Payne told me. “As did two millionaires I was talking to.” Those millionaires were Guy Saperstein, a civil-rights lawyer, and David desJardins, an early employee at Google.

Payne wrote a short open letter, urging Obama to let the tax cuts expire, and Saperstein and desJardins signed it, as did forty-five other people who qualified for the tax cut, including the musician Moby and Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s. Payne called the group the Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, posted the letter online, and sent it out as a press release. It was immediately picked up by the media, Payne said, probably because “lots of wealthy people say they want to do good in the world but fewer of them want to specifically advance the things that would actually bring good in the world but that may cost them.” The letter got the attention of the White House, and Payne was invited to attend Obama’s 2012 Tax Day address.

She began approaching Democratic donors and businesspeople to pitch the idea of an organization focussed on three core beliefs: that if people work full time they should be paid enough to meet their basic needs; that regular people deserve as much political power as the wealthy; and that rich people and corporations should pay higher taxes. Payne speaks bluntly about these goals. People who support tax cuts for high earners and reductions to social programs are “very deliberately attempting to create a permanent underclass,” she said. “You want people to suffer and die earlier, because your greed is more important to you than another human being.”

Payne also runs the Agenda Project, a progressive political-advocacy organization that she founded in 2009 and which she describes as aiming to “dismantle the conservative premise and shove it into the dark recesses of the human psyche, where it belongs.” She has a knack for illustrating policy battles in ways that are both bizarre and memorable. In one of the Agenda Project’s ads, which she made during a Republican push to drastically cut Medicare, an actor who resembles Paul Ryan, the former House Speaker, wheels an elderly woman through an idyllic wooded park before steering the wheelchair to the edge of a cliff and pushing her off; other ads of Payne’s have targeted the Tea Party, Mitt Romney, and antiabortion activists. The videos are cheaply made, and a little crude, but they generate attention….

To qualify for the group, members must have an annual income of at least a million dollars, or assets worth more than five million dollars. That could include many families who would describe themselves as upper middle class—who, for instance, own homes in cities with hot real-estate markets. When I asked Payne how hard it was to persuade rich people to join, she said, “I think the last time I checked there were about three hundred and seventy-five thousand taxpayers in the country who make a million dollars a year in income”—there are now almost half a million—“and we have a couple hundred members.” She laughed. “If you ever needed a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many of America’s élite are concerned about the basic well-being of their fellow-citizens, that should give you a rough estimate.” Members include Chuck Collins, the heir to the Oscar Mayer fortune; Roberta Kaplan, the civil-rights lawyer; Jeffrey Gural, the real-estate investor; and George Zimmer, the founder of Men’s Wearhouse.

It might seem disingenuous for people to try to change the rules after they have already amassed fortunes via the old, “rigged” system; some might also see their efforts as a way to generate flattering publicity or to alleviate feelings of guilt. But the group’s members say that they are concerned about the future of the nation. Some of them feel that severe inequality fuels corruption and has led to the election of Trump and other right-wing leaders across the world. Many of them believe that inaction on inequality could lead to the kinds of violent street protests recently seen in countries like Chile.

The group has produced TV ads and online videos and has sent members to speak at rallies; before important votes, it often targets members of Congress who are likely to be influenced by rich businesspeople in their districts. In New York State, the group has lobbied to close the carried-interest tax loophole, which shields the income of many hedge-fund and private-equity-fund managers, and it has advocated for a so-called pied-à-terre bracket, which would apply to people with part-time homes. Several members, including Molly Munger, the daughter of Charlie Munger, the longtime vice-chairman of Warren Buffett’s firm, Berkshire Hathaway, have spoken in favor of a wealth tax.

In February, Morris Pearl, a former executive at the asset-management firm BlackRock and the chair of the Patriotic Millionaires, wrote an article for the group’s Web site expressing support for Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax, which would impose a tariff of two per cent on fortunes greater than fifty million dollars and three per cent on those above a billion. (Warren recently doubled her proposed billion-plus tax rate, to six per cent.) The group helped develop a bill, introduced in the House of Representatives in November, that would impose a surtax on the country’s highest earners, and it is working on other legislation, including a bill that would raise the estate tax.

In July, the House passed another bill supported by the Millionaires, called the Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the federal hourly minimum wage to fifteen dollars by 2025 and would eliminate a law that permits tipped workers to be paid as little as two dollars and thirteen cents an hour. Judy Conti, the government-affairs director of the National Employment Law Project, one of the groups with which the Millionaires pushed for the bill, told me that, before the legislation was introduced, two hundred and three House members had indicated that they would support it—fifteen votes short of the number needed for Democratic leadership to introduce it for a vote.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups argued that the bill would kill jobs. Many of the undecided members of Congress were moderate Democrats who supported raising the minimum wage but thought that fifteen dollars might be too high and worried about the consequences for small businesses in their states. The Patriotic Millionaires, working with several other organizations, made a list of around thirty undecided House members and identified those who might be especially receptive to business leaders who supported the bill. The group then contacted those members and their staffs. Conti said, of the Patriotic Millionaires, “They help us make the business case for the minimum wage and give moderate members a measure of the cover they need to vote yes. They will talk to members about how taking the high road is the best business strategy, how this is part of how we invest in our workers, that when we treat them better they work better for us—we have less turnover, higher productivity—and when workers in our community have more money in their pockets they spend it at our businesses.” The bill passed with thirteen more votes than it needed. When I asked her how impactful the group had been, she said, “When you’re looking for those last votes, it’s micro-targeting. If they can help deliver two members—and they helped deliver at least two members—they’re effective.”

Beginning in the early eighties, the remnants of the post-F.D.R. era of social democracy gave way to the age of Ronald Reagan, which brought deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the promise that free-market capitalism would lead to widespread prosperity. In spite of ample evidence that the new system wasn’t working as anticipated, this ideology has dominated economic policymaking ever since. Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton, told me, “We live in a world where supply-side economics, which was always a fraud, became a religion.”

After the recession of 2008-09, the Occupy Wall Street protest movement focussed public attention on the financial industry and its influence on government. The anthropologist David Graeber, one of the movement’s early organizers, helped popularize the term “the ninety-nine per cent” to describe everyone who wasn’t among the wealthiest “one per cent,” a tiny group that controls forty per cent of the nation’s wealth. In 2014, the French economist Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-first Century,” based on a decade of research into the distribution of wealth, became a surprise best-seller. Piketty argued that, without aggressive taxation, the very wealthy would continue to pull further ahead of everyone else. Abigail Disney told me that, although she didn’t get through all eight hundred and sixteen pages of the book, she “certainly got the gist of it, and the gist of it was really important.”

That year, the entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, one of the first investors in Amazon, gave a ted talk called “Beware, Fellow Plutocrats, the Pitchforks Are Coming.” After describing his multiple homes, his yacht, and his private plane, Hanauer argued that the U.S. was at risk of becoming a neo-feudalist rentier society similar to France before the Revolution. In an essay in Politico, he wrote, “Revolutions, like bankruptcies, come gradually, and then suddenly. One day, somebody sets himself on fire, then thousands of people are in the streets, and before you know it, the country is burning. And then there’s no time for us to get to the airport and jump on our Gulfstream Vs and fly to New Zealand.”

In the past few years, many economists, including Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, as well as Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, of M.I.T., have tried to demonstrate that extreme inequality can be reversed. In the lead-up to the 2020 elections, pundits and politicians on the left and right have been asking how best to fix capitalism. In January, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson spent fifteen minutes criticizing free-market capitalism as a system that exploits average people. Polls indicate that the number of Americans who support some form of socialism has risen dramatically. In March, during an interview on “Morning Joe,” the former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who was running for President as a business-friendly Democrat, refused to call himself a capitalist.

More business leaders have begun to say that inequality has reached dangerous levels. In April, Ray Dalio, the founder of the hundred-and-sixty-billion-dollar hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, posted a lengthy essay on LinkedIn in which he wrote that American workers in the bottom sixty per cent of earners have had no income growth, after adjusting for inflation, since 1980, while the incomes of the top ten per cent have doubled and those of the top one per cent have tripled. One graphic ranked wealthy countries in terms of the likelihood that a child born into the lowest economic quartile would move into the top quartile; the U.S. was second to last, ahead of only China. Dalio warned that, if capitalism wasn’t drastically changed, the U.S. would have “great conflict and some form of revolution that will hurt everyone….”

For its first nine years, the Patriotic Millionaires operated out of Washington and New York. This year, the group expanded to the West Coast, in part to attract more members from the technology industry. Kelsea-Marie Pym, the group’s executive director, pointed out that California has been at the forefront of implementing the kinds of economic policies that the group wants to see enacted nationally. “Our goal is to begin to challenge the wealthy to understand that inequality is at such a destabilizing level right now that, by sitting on the sidelines, you’re effectively adding to the problem,” Pym said…

I asked her [Disney] how she felt about the pledge that billionaires such as Buffett and Bill Gates had signed, promising to donate at least half of their fortunes to philanthropic causes. “I’ve given away much more than fifty per cent of my net worth, and I don’t intend to stop,” she said. “And, frankly, if you’re a billionaire and only want to give away half of your fortune, something is wrong with you.” Disney is wary of the idea that the generosity of individual rich people can solve society’s problems. Anand Giridharadas, the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” has argued that much philanthropy does far more to boost the reputations of the donors than it does to help create a more just society. Such gifts also tend to come with generous tax breaks, meaning that taxpayers are underwriting the donations that get hedge-fund moguls’ names put on wings of art museums and hospitals. Instead, Disney wants to convince more people that systemic change is needed. “I get messages like ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ve never worked a day in your life!’ ” she told me. “And I’m, like, You’re making my point! I’ve never worked a day in my life, and look at me! I’m sitting here in total comfort. You can work all your life and you will never find yourself where I am today.” She said that she doesn’t blame people for being resentful: “I will always be sort of an alien anthropologist looking at poverty from my very rarefied air.”