Meet the folk hero of Davos: the writer who told the rich to stop dodging taxes

One of the biggest stars to come out of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week wasn’t a CEO or a head of state or a venture capitalist. It was Rutger Bregman, a Dutch journalist and historian, who used his speaking time at the conference to lambaste the rich attendees for failing to talk about the one thing we know could fight wealth inequality: raising taxes for the kind of people who go to Davos.

A video of his righteous rant went viral; the tweet below has nearly 47,000 retweets:

“It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water, right?” Bregman said. “Just stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes. … We can invite Bono once more, but we’ve got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion.”

As if to prove his point, one Davos attendee — Ken Goldman, the former CFO of Yahoo — used the question-and-answer period to denounce Bregman and Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of Oxfam International also on the panel, for a “very one-sided panel,” and demanded that they offer solutions to inequality besides higher taxes.

I’ve followed Bregman’s work for some time because of our shared interest in universal basic income (UBI); his book Utopia for Realists is a passionate argument for UBI, open borders, and a 15-hour workweek as important and achievable goals. But with UBI so fashionable in Silicon Valley circles, and global capitalists frequently denounced by right-wing populists as tools striving for open borders, I had thought he was the kind of lefty whose ideas were safe for Davos.

Clearly, I was wrong! We talked over Skype on Wednesday about his viral moment, the problems with elite capitalism and elite philanthropy, and the indispensable role of the welfare state. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dylan Matthews

How’d you wind up talking at Davos?

Rutger Bregman

My book was more or less the ticket to Davos. As you know, basic income is a hugely popular subject in Silicon Valley and I guess they wanted me to talk about that.

During the conference, I started getting this uncomfortable feeling, like no one’s talking about the elephant in the room, right? So it’s all about education, and climate change, and feminism, and inclusion and blah, blah, blah. The solutions are so pathetic, to be honest. It’s, “We’re going to organize another workshop on transparency,” or, “We have this great initiative with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

And I mean, there’s some great philanthropy, right? But philanthropy is not a substitute for democracy or proper taxation or a good welfare state. So then I started to think, I can’t just go on promoting my book on Friday. I just can’t do that. I can’t live with myself. I’ve got to state the obvious.

So on Thursday, I basically went to my hotel room and prepared a speech, and I learned it by heart. I got a question the next day from Edward Felsenthal, the editor-in-chief of Time magazine. And he asked me a question about basic income and about poverty and blah, blah, blah. I more or less ignored it and just gave my speech.

The response in the room was quite mixed. Some of the younger participants really liked it, and some journalists really liked it, but as you can see in the video, the Yahoo CFO — and there were quite a few other people like him — really hated it.

And then on Monday and Tuesday, it completely exploded.

Dylan Matthews

You did a very nice TED talk on the book. Was the attitude at the TED Conference similar or different to Davos?

Rutger Bregman

I thought that TED was a pretty bizarre experience as well. Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to do that. It’s a fantastic stage to stand on, it’s a really good team that you work with, and I thought that most of the Ted talks I saw at that conference in 2017 were incredible, given by people who really know their subject and did their very best to condense it all into one talk.

But then at the same time, you realize that it’s actually a networking event for the rich and powerful. So onstage you have this progressive leftist thing, but then in the halls, you hear some conversations and talk to some people and realize, “Whoa, you’re from another planet.” I remember a guy who was explaining to me that government always fails and that we should basically try to abolish it. It all sounded completely ridiculous to me.

Dylan Matthews

I’m curious how your thinking about philanthropy has evolved in recent years. Part of why your speech blew up is it captured this feeling expressed in recent books by folks like Anand Giridharadas or Rob Reich, that philanthropy has gotten a pass and the ways in which it can undermine democracy or entrench inequalities have gone underexamined.

Rutger Bregman

Take someone like Bill Gates, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I’ve got very mixed feelings about them. There’s extraordinary evidence that they are doing a lot of good. They’re basically saving millions of lives, and who could be against that?

But I don’t want to live in a society where we are dependent on the charity of one guy and his wife for something like that. That’s not what a just society looks like in my mind. In any just society, philanthropy should play a very small role, and you need to have a strong welfare state, strong governments, so that together, you can democratically decide on what you want to do.

That’s a point that Anand makes very well, that this philanthropy can be an excuse, a distraction from talking about the real issues. So at Davos you’ve got all these people who earned their money through exploitation, rent-seeking, you name it, and then they do a little bit of philanthropy to distract from all of that. And it can do real damage if you give that a lot of attention.

Dylan Matthews

I find myself split on this. I look at billionaire philanthropy, and a lot of it is just pure waste — see, for instance, the American hedge fund manager Steve Schwarzman, who gave $150 million for a new performing arts center at Yale.

But my conviction that this is wasteful, and an anti-democratic exercise of raw power, is challenged by the existence of people like Gates. My belief that we ought to have a real democracy where billionaires don’t have that kind of influence through their gift-giving conflicts with my desire to not have lots of people die from malaria.

I’m curious if you reconcile those real benefits that a small number of philanthropists provide with your broader critique.

Rutger Bregman

It’s interesting to think about a hypothetical world where billionaires like Bill Gates don’t exist, where inequality is way lower in the US, and what that would look like. How much malaria would there be in the world?

I don’t think it will be a worse world. I think you could make a case that it would be a better world — you would be not giving your talks about effective altruism in front of philanthropists, but in front of government officials. I think that’s the world I would want to live in.

Now, I understand that obviously in the short term, we’ve got to work with what we have. So I’m not saying that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation should be abolished or anything. They’re doing great work. But I would want to live in a society where they’re not necessary, where they’re not the people who are doing the work.

And let’s also remember that Bill Gates is not in the majority. Most millionaires don’t have a foundation like that. And indeed, they fund a lot of stupid things. As Branko Milanovic put it, they will fund the Philharmonic Orchestra and then exploit their workers once again.

Dylan Matthews

A particularly persuasive part of your book is your critique of paternalistic government programs (giving food instead of cash, for instance) and your argument for the decentralizing power of basic income, its ability to give citizens more control over their benefits.

I think for a lot of people in Silicon Valley and the Davos ecosystem, that kind of reasoning can serve as a justification for their role: We can’t trust the government to micromanage, when it intervenes it should be in minimally regulated ways like universal basic income, and the rest of the world should be up to us, as independent capitalist actors, to sort out for ourselves without the government pushing us around.

Obviously, you think that’s the wrong conclusion to take.

Rutger Bregman

Often, we frame the debate as something between capitalism and communism, or market versus state, or whatever. And I think there’s actually a way around that. It’s what I call the anarchist state. I think the state should think like an anarchist. What you need is a big state in terms of redistribution. You need to have relatively high tax levels so that you can spread the wealth around, and give everyone a bit of venture capital in the form of basic income to make their own choices. But you don’t need a huge amount of bureaucrats in health care, for example, that decide how specifically that health care is being delivered.

A great example from Holland is an organization called Neighborhood Care, or Buurtzorg. They have 10,000 employees in all self-directed teams, obviously funded by the state with taxpayer money.

But then these professionals do everything themselves. They decide for themselves who they want to employ, what kind of education they need; they’re relatively cheaper than the competitors, they’re hugely popular with their clients, and they pay their employees higher wages as well. It’s almost like an anarchist organization, but then funded by the government.

That’s what I’m interested in, if we can scale up those kinds of models. But from a European perspective, for something like universal health care, it’s just not a discussion here. We know it works. It’s hugely popular. I really see a basic income as a supplement to those great achievements.

Dylan Matthews

One critique I’ve heard from the left of basic income is that it lacks a political economy. Traditionally, the base of left politics has been labor unions and mass worker organizing, who then agitate for what they want from the bottom up. By contrast, there’s a perception that basic income is an idea imposed from the top, that even if it benefits a lot of people, it’s coming from Silicon Valley, from figures like Mark Zuckerberg, as a top-down attempt to pay the proletariat not to eat them.

Has your experience as a visitor in Davos and TED changed how you think about how a basic income could be achieved?

Rutger Bregman

It’s not necessarily a bad thing if a good idea comes from the top. There are good examples throughout history of real leadership — in American history, presidents going forward even though public opinion is not behind them. Take the example of Porto Alegre, the Brazilian city that started with participatory democracy and participatory budgeting. That was really implemented from the top but then became hugely popular from the bottom up as well.

There’s a lot in basic income for labor unions as well. Obviously not the version where you abolish the whole welfare state and give people one small cash grant, as some libertarians and Silicon Valley want, but if it’s a substantial basic income, then it’s also a universal strike fund. You can always go on strike, stop working. Labor unions should like that.

It was a completely forgotten idea on the fringes of the political debate, and now is being invited to places like Davos. The first talks I gave about it were for small groups of anarchists, and now it’s places like this. It’s another example of what I tried to show in my book: that new ideas start on the fringes and they move toward the center.

It’s the same with what’s happening around Elizabeth Warren’s tax plan and [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez. It’s the Overton window moving in the right direction.

Dylan Matthews

Do elite crowds like that respond differently to you when you talk about 15-hour workweeks? That’s another idea in your book with less elite cachet.

Rutger Bregman

There’s a version of the idea of a shorter workweek that can be very comfortable to the CEOs. If you just say, “Why don’t we move from a five-day workweek to four days? We can be more productive and more creative.” They’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” But obviously, my point is a bit more fundamental. We should rethink what work is, and we’ve got a huge amount of bullshit jobs right now.

Did you see this recent paper? It’s by two Dutch economists on socially useless jobs and it’s the first proper poll that has been done on the phenomenon that David Graeber described. Thirty-seven countries, 27,000 employees, were asked the question: Does your job contribute anything to the common good? Eight percent said no and 17 percent were in doubt. So if you add that up, around a quarter of the workforce is not sure whether they contribute anything.

And the great thing about this paper is that they split it up by profession or by sector. You can see that finance ranks very high, and marketing ranks very high, and for police officers or firefighters or teachers, it’s literally zero, zero percent. So that’s the debate I wanted to have around work and about a shorter working week. But that’s obviously not what they were interested in at Davos.

Dylan Matthews

There’s another line of critique, very different from yours or Giridharadas’s, which is the Trump/Geert Wilders line: These are global elites plotting open borders and other schemes to destroy the honest, good (white) working people of America and the Netherlands. You’re a vocal advocate for open borders — do you see elites as a useful ally for open borders?

Rutger Bregman

Not really. What they have is open borders for the privileged few. I’m advocating open borders for everyone, which is obviously the most utopian idea of my book. People like Geert Wilders and Donald Trump are partly right when they say this. I was at a private panel where journalists were not allowed, under Chatham House rules, where one guy said, “Oh, you can increase taxes, but I’ll just move.” And I was like, this is exactly what got France the yellow vest movement, and this is exactly what makes people incredibly angry, because they’re like, “You’re not even loyal to your own country. So fuck off already.” So that critique is partly right.

But I just think we shouldn’t take that threat — “Oh, I’ll just move to another country” — too seriously. I think there are many cases where people won’t, because they like the country in which they live too much, and then if they do it anyway, then maybe we shouldn’t even want to have that money anyway, or we should cooperate on a global level.

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