The Common Good
January-February 2001

What's Right With This Picture?

by Holly Lebowitz Rossi | January-February 2001

Some of the wealthiest people in America are seeking justice instead of tax shelters.

It seems counterintuitive at first: the wealthiest Americans raising their voices to keep the estate tax, protesting capital gains tax cuts, and fighting for a living wage for all working people. Shouldn't these rich folks be mired in self-preservation, more interested in their portfolios than in the poor?

Absolutely not, says the Responsible Wealth campaign, a group whose more than 450 members fall in the top 5 percent of income earners in the United States. This means that they earn at least $145,000 in annual household income or have at least $650,000 in net assets.

Responsible Wealth, which is a project of the economic justice group United for a Fair Economy, uses the resources and clout of the wealthiest in society to raise awareness and affect change in economic policy. Members comprise a network of business leaders, investors, professionals, and other affluent Americans.

The group's efforts are concentrated into three main categories—tax fairness, living wage, and corporate responsibility-oriented shareholder initiatives.

Their most visible initiative of late was to support President Clinton's veto of the Estate Tax Repeal, a measure that would have eliminated special taxes that are levied against large estates when a person dies. Estate taxes can cut an inheritance in half, so wealthy people in general were vocally in favor of the repeal. The issue was highly politically charged, as Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush was in favor of eliminating the so-called "death tax" while Democratic candidate Al Gore was not.

Responsible Wealth took the position that most wealthy people not only inherit dollars and cents, but they also have benefited from social institutions like public schools, libraries, and museums. So giving back to society through the estate tax is not a case of simply throwing hard-earned money away.

"We all believe that paying your estate tax does not mean you are choosing between taking care of your children and grandchildren and giving back to society," Martin Rothenberg, a Responsible Wealth member, told reporters at a White House briefing. "You can do both."

Scott Klinger, co-director of Responsible Wealth, identifies a "predominant cultural myth" that a person who is a financial success has "pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps." On the contrary, Klinger argues, "Successes are built upon the investment of the broader society," such as low-interest housing loans and public education. "They have succeeded on the shoulders of people who are maybe faceless and nameless, but who are nonetheless there," he said.

Mike Lapham, a founding member and co-director of Responsible Wealth, came to his work from a personal dissatisfaction with the way wealthy people are encouraged to think about their money.

"I grew up with the message that you don't talk about your wealth, you keep it a secret," said Lapham, whose great-great-grandfather founded a highly successful paper mill in upstate New York, "but I was uncomfortable with having my cake and eating it too." Lapham observed "gross inequities" between people in his family's circle and people who "were working but couldn't put a roof over their heads." So he decided that he "would try to use my voice as a person of wealth and also try to change the rules."

Many Responsible Wealth members consider it imperative to use the resources they've been given for justice. Naomi King, the daughter of the famous horror novelist Stephen King, is active in the group. "I believe that we are all called to be involved in improving human society and making it more like God wants us to be, which is making the kingdom of heaven here on earth," said King, who is a Master of Divinity student at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.

King, a Unitarian Universalist, says that "from my perspective, faith is critical" to her activism. She is also, like Lapham, active because of her family history. "My family has not always been a family of means," she said. "That makes a big difference for me in that social justice is the lived reality of being on the other end of the socio-economic spectrum."

King is joined by many Responsible Wealth members who approach economic justice from a religious perspective. Although the organization does not define itself as faith-based, it is developing a curriculum with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and it has trained 115 facilitators to conduct workshops in churches and synagogues. The workshops, called "The Growing Divide," help spread the word about trends in income and wealth over recent decades. People of faith and others have joined together in more than 20 cities to form local Responsible Wealth chapters and continue in this endeavor.

"Jesus talked more about our relationship with money than any other topic, other than the kingdom of God," said Frank Butler, an active Responsible Wealth member and board member of the faith-based group Ministry of Money. Butler, who is also the retired CEO of the Eastman Gelatine Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Eastman Kodak, says that an important contribution that Responsible Wealth makes is that it addresses people of wealth from within their own community.

"It's important for people who are wealthy to raise these issues, because they can speak from a platform where others wouldn't be heard," Butler said.

The Rev. Charles Demeré, a retired—though he prefers the term "free-lance"—Episcopal priest in St. Mary's County, Maryland, gives 50 percent of his income each year to Responsible Wealth because of his faith-based sense of justice. "I've always tried to take a stewardship approach, having been given inherited wealth," Demeré says.

He says that selfishness abounds in today's society, and that a call to justice is a needed antidote to greed. "Greed is a tactic of the devil, and we need to resist the temptation to be greedy. I think we're all tempted to be greedy—I know I am."

But Demeré also sees a positive side of selfishness. He believes that people who have their own self-interest in mind can be as equally motivated by justice as people who profess themselves to be selfless. "Part of self-interest is wanting to be just," he said. "There's a certain pride in being on the side of justice."

Demeré's activism with Responsible Wealth resulted in one of the group's most successful programs. "I have always been sort of proud of America because I felt that our graduated income tax was fair. But when the 1997 tax act came into effect with the reduction in capital gains tax, I just thought it was a windfall for the rich and unjust and unfair," Demeré said.

So Demeré calculated how much he was saving in capital gains tax, the tax that is applied to income earned from selling investments like stock or real estate for a profit. Before 1997, the capital gains tax rate was 28 percent—it was lowered that year to 20 percent. With the money that he saved because of the tax cut, Demeré made a contribution to Responsible Wealth. Today, more than $3 million for Responsible Wealth and other economic justice groups have been donated through this "Tax Fairness Pledge."

Lapham, the Responsible Wealth co-director, says that the Tax Fairness Pledge resonates with a lot of members' senses of the unfairness in the tax system. "People who have more should pay a greater share of the burden," he said. "We are seeing that principle eroded. We want to at least start a conversation about what's fair."

Corporate responsibility is being discussed more and more as this era of unprecedented prosperity stretches on. Groups such as the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America, led by the Rev. Leon Sullivan, have issued moral codes like Sullivan's "Ten Commandments of Corporate Responsibility."

And corporations, including AT&T, Raytheon, General Electric, and Microsoft, are considering shareholder resolutions that push for living wages, pay equity between employees at the executive and worker levels, and job security for working people. Shareholder resolutions are nonbinding documents that express the opinions of a company's stockholders on a specific issue.

But the fight for economic justice will be a long one, leaders agree. On average, according to co-director Klinger, shareholder resolutions supported by Responsible Wealth earned 7 percent of shareholder support during 1997, the group's first year of existence. This year, the group is reporting an average of 10 percent shareholder support for the various resolutions.

"We see this as a long-term movement of changing people's hearts and minds," said Klinger, who attributes the gradual increase in attention to the justice-oriented resolutions in part to Responsible Wealth's increasing media presence. In the coming years, especially if economic expansion continues and more and more people become financially successful, increasing numbers of Americans may learn to resolve the apparent paradox of the pursuit of wealth and the desire for social justice.

Holly J. Lebowitz is a free-lance writer in the Boston area. She is also an editor for Beliefnet.com.

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