A Tale of Two Billionaires: Yvon Chouinard and Warren Buffet
Two of America’s most famously philanthropic billionaires recently made headlines, but for very different reasons.
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor apparel company Patagonia, shocked the world when he decided to give his entire company away. Along with his wife and two adult children, Chouinard transferred complete ownership of Patagonia to a trust and a nonprofit working to combat climate change.
His billionaire counterpart Warren Buffett was also in the news, but for much less admirable reasons. Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway owns one of the country’s largest railway carriers, BNSF, which is embroiled in an ongoing dispute with rail worker unions over inhumane working conditions. The dispute almost escalated to a rail strike that had the potential to cost the U.S. economy $2 billion per day, yet Buffett refused to provide rail workers the support they needed.
Judging from these news stories, it appears as though America is writing a new chapter in its history books that could best be entitled “A Tale of Two Billionaires.”
On one side, we have socially responsible billionaires like Chouinard who not only “talk the talk” when it comes to workers’ rights, sustainability, and economic justice but who actually take action. They are willing to put their money where their mouth is and risk it all — their reputations, their children’s and grandchildren’s inheritances, and even their entire companies — to take concrete steps to level the economic playing field in America and protect our planet.
On the other side, we have billionaires like Buffett. Over the years, the world’s fifth richest man has put on a fantastic show about wanting to help workers. He famously penned a New York Times op-ed where he voiced his chagrin over paying a lower tax rate than his secretary, which prompted then-President Obama to name his iconic “Buffett Rule” after him. He also famously signed the Giving Pledge and promised to give away the bulk of his fortune to charity.
But in reality, Buffett’s show is unfortunately just that: a show. He may say the right things to make the headlines, but when push comes to shove, he doesn’t actually follow through when it comes to getting his hands dirty in the fight for economic justice.
Look no further than the railroad dispute driven in large part by the exploitative practices of his own subsidiary company, BNSF. Despite claiming to care about supporting working Americans, Buffett has done nothing whatsoever to help the rail workers with their demands. It’s easy to talk about fairness, but apparently, it’s too much to expect Buffett to do anything that might adversely impact his own bottom line.
Buffett’s hypocrisy doesn’t stop there. He’s been documented profiting from an exploitative mobile-home empire that swindles low-income earners. He signed the Giving Pledge back in 2010 when he was worth $47 billion, yet a decade after he pledged to give most of his fortune away, he is now worth $118 billion. He did nothing whatsoever to prevent the passage of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which conveniently made Berkshire Hathaway $29 billion richer. And if that wasn’t enough, Buffett didn’t even bother to show up at the White House when then-President Obama unveiled the tax proposal that was named after him.
We have serious problems in America today, and if billionaires aren’t serious about tackling them head-on, they shouldn’t be able to launder their reputations through charitable giving and flashy PR campaigns. Inequality has reached heights not seen in over a century. The minimum wage has stood frozen at $7.25 an hour for 13 years. Wages can’t rise fast enough to keep pace with record-breaking inflation brought on by corporate price-gouging. Millionaires and billionaires pay far too little in taxes compared to the rest of the country. Unions are under attack like never before.
The stakes are simply too high for some billionaires to sit on the sidelines and pretend to care. Something has to change. We can’t let billionaires like Buffett get away with treating workers’ rights as little PR exercises and fail to show up when it matters most. It’s not enough to “talk the talk.” In order to level the economic playing field in this country, they must take their cue from responsible billionaires like Chouinard and finally “walk the walk.”
Phyllis Hatfield is a retired book editor and Seattle-based member of the Patriotic Millionaires