A discussion panel at the Davos World Economic Forum has become a sensation after a Dutch historian took billionaires to task for not paying taxes.
In a video shared tens of thousands of times, Rutger Bregman, author of the book Utopia for Realists, bemoans the failure of attendees at the recent gathering in Switzerland to address the key issue in the battle for greater equality: the failure of rich people to pay their fair share of taxes.
Noting that 1,500 people had travelled to Davos by private jet to hear David Attenborough talk about climate change, he said he was bewildered that no one was talking about raising taxes on the rich.
“I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share,” Bregman tells the Time magazine panel on inequality.
“It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.”
Industry had to “stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes”, he said, and cited the high tax regime of 1950s America as an example to disprove arguments by businesspeople at Davos such as Michael Dell that economies with high personal taxation could not succeed. “That’s it,” he says. “Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion.”
But another panel member, Winnie Byanyima, an Oxfam executive director, took up the fight and said high employment was not a good thing in itself because many people found themselves in exploitative work. She cited the example of poultry workers in the US who had to wear nappies (diapers) because they were not allowed toilet breaks.
“That’s not a dignified job,” she said. “those are the jobs we’ve been told about, that globalisation is bringing jobs. The quality of the jobs matter. In many countries workers no longer have a voice.
Addressing Goldman, she said: “You’re counting the wrong things. You’re not counting dignity of people. You’re counting exploited people.”
Billions of dollars were leaked by tax avoidance every year which should instead be going to alleviate poverty in the developing world, she added.
After the panel Bregman tweeted a link to a opinion piece he wrote for the Guardian in 2017, saying “most wealth is not created at the top, but merely devoured there”.