By Hannah Dreier
As the middle class struggles to make gains and President Barack Obama strives to shine a spotlight on the issue of income inequality, an unlikely constituency is looking for ways to close the nation’s growing wealth gap: A handful of top U.S. business tycoons.
These advocates point to notions of fairness and admit to twinges of guilt, but the core concern driving all of them — left, right and libertarian — is a belief that the economy doesn’t function efficiently when the wealth gap is wide. They are proposing solutions that range from pressuring fellow entrepreneurs to pay workers more to simply giving their money back to the government to redistribute.
Since roughly 1980, the wealthy have been prospering while the middle class stagnates or falls behind. Members of the 0.1 percent now make at least $1.7 million a year and grab 10 percent of the national income, while the median annual household income has dropped, landing at $51,017.
The gap is growing wider. Income for the highest-earning 1 percent of Americans soared 31 percent from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation. For everyone else, it inched up an average of 0.4 percent.
As U.S. society has grown more unequal, rich men and women have set up clubs and foundations to encourage economic parity, and they are actively lobbying for change.
Here’s a look at some of these opponents of the widening gap between the poor and, well, themselves.
The most visible of the super-rich Robin Hoods is investor Warren Buffett, who has persuaded dozens of billionaires to give away large portions of their fortunes. Buffett, 83, is the second-richest American, according to Forbes magazine, with a net worth of $58.5 billion. He heads Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which owns everything from the insurance company GEICO and Dairy Queen to underwear maker Fruit of the Loom.
For years, the self-made Omaha, Neb., magnate has advocated policies to close the wealth gap, saying reforms are necessary for the nation’s continued prosperity.
Not all members of the super-rich taking up the issue of inequality are progressives. Ron Unz, 52, a Silicon Valley millionaire and registered Republican who once ran for California governor, is advocating the highest minimum wage in the country for his home state. Unz rose to fame when he spearheaded a 1998 ballot proposal that dismantled California’s bilingual education system. He later became publisher of The American Conservative, a libertarian-leaning magazine.
Lately, he has become obsessed with the idea that a wage increase is the best way to advance the conservative ideal of reducing dependence on government programs.
Unz, whose fortune comes from founding Wall Street Analytics Inc., argues that by not paying a living wage, companies are forcing the government to subsidize them through massive welfare spending.
Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer believes the growing wealth gap threatens the economic system that has given him his fortune. One of the early investors in Amazon, Hanauer started the Internet company aQuantive Inc., which was acquired by Microsoft Corp. in 2007 for $6.4 billion.
Hanauer, 54, advocates raising taxes for the rich and raising the minimum wage to the unheard-of heights of $15 an hour.
Steve Silberstein made his fortune in the early days of computers by co-founding Innovative Interfaces, a software company that creates technology for hundreds of college and university libraries. He sold the company, settled in a secluded town in Marin County, Calif., and became a philanthropist.
Now, at 70, he is a low-profile member of a movement to organize institutional investors in opposing what he and others say are exorbitant executive salaries.
Silberstein advocates a policy that would tie corporate tax rates to the difference in compensation between the CEO and an average worker.
Leo Hindery Jr.
Leo Hindery Jr., the New York City media and investing mogul, is one of hundreds of wealthy people directly asking Congress to raise their taxes as a member of Patriotic Millionaires.
The group was formed in 2010 to advocate for the end of Bush-era tax cuts for people making more than $1 million a year. Hindery, 66, is also a member of Smart Capitalists for American Prosperity, and he was among a group of entrepreneurs who went door-to-door in the halls of Congress in early February asking for a higher minimum wage.
He says he’s turned down raises to ensure that he never makes more than 20 times the salary of his employees. He is also one of the biggest Democratic fundraisers in the nation.
The 66-year-old argues that giving rich people tax breaks makes no economic sense because people like him don’t put their extra dollars back into the economy.