Last Christmas, I gave my father a copy of Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas’s scathing critique of how the wealthy use philanthropy to reinforce their power. Giridharadas speaks as an insider: he is a former analyst for McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm that, as the New York Times reported, has both advised Purdue Pharma on how to “turbocharge” opioid sales and raised the stature of authoritarian governments. I picked the book because I’d spent the last half-decade having a back-and-forth with my parents over starting a charitable foundation, only to realize that we had very different visions for what that charity might be. I imagined donating a portion of their income, which would, in turn, award grants to local nonprofits. My mother suggested they instead accumulate millions in an endowment and donate the capital returns annually.
Two months later, I was talking to my dad and he told me he had read it. “This doesn’t apply to me, Meghan,” he said. “Do I have a private jet?” No, I said, adding that the dozens of commercials flights he takes annually still leave an outsized environmental footprint. “Do I have a mansion?” he asked. Yes, I said, pointing out that the house he bought after separating from my mother had even been featured in an architecture magazine. “No, I mean, do I have a mansion at the lake?”
“Dad,” I said, “are you asking me if you have a mansion on your private island?”
“No.” I carefully picked my words. “Neither of the houses on your private island is a mansion.”
My family is rich via a privately owned corporation founded by my maternal grandfather. In the last decade, we joined the elite ranks of Canada’s 0.1 percent (in the top 10 percent of the 1 percent wealthiest in the country) because we, like many wealthy families, are only getting richer. I don’t know how much money my family has, nor do I have any access to their wealth; they’ve identified me (correctly) as the leaky faucet of the family because of my feminist and socialist politics. I’ve encouraged them to share more than they currently donate (and to pay their 700 employees more).
As I see it, the ongoing conflict between me and my family is simple: they believe they are entitled to yearly vacations, two cabins, sports cars, a speedboat, lavish parties, and growing their own wealth despite already having so much more than most people. They believe that, because they are millionaires and not billionaires, because they are new money (my mother’s father was the son of an Italian immigrant who worked as a produce driver; my father is the son of upper-middle-class Republicans), because they are generous with their many friends, and because they pay their taxes, they are not the problem. I believe, as A. Q. Smith put it in Current Affairs, that “it’s basically just immoral to be rich.” All of which is why I want Canada to adopt a wealth tax.
The growing wealth gap, the impact of capitalism on climate change, and the question of what will happen when millions of jobs are inevitably lost to automation are just some of the many frightening issues younger generations are facing. Inequality, both within Canada and globally, has been steadily increasing since the 1980s. Canadian billionaires increased their wealth by over $20 billion in 2018, and bank executives from the top five Canadian banks pocketed $55 million in direct compensation. Meanwhile, according an Oxfam report, the poorest half of the country holds only around 4.5 percent of its wealth. What’s more, about 3.4 million people (roughly 18 percent of whom are children) live below the poverty line.
To combat and reverse this trend, progressive political candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Jagmeet Singh have all proposed different versions of a wealth tax on the richest families in their respective countries. If enacted, Singh’s plan would tax 1 percent of wealth exceeding $20 million (inclusive of real estate, investments, and luxury items), raising nearly 70 billion dollars in additional tax revenue over the next decade. I’d argue that a wealth tax, combined with other reforms such as capping executive pay, cracking down on tax shelters, and increasing the top marginal income-tax rate, has the potential to slowly erode the fortunes of the super-wealthy and limit the amount of money individual families can accumulate. I began to see the idea of a wealth tax grow in popularity after French economist Thomas Piketty proposed a progressive annual tax on capital in his 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Back home, a recent survey found that the majority of Canadians, including conservatives, support a wealth tax. As Piketty explains (somewhat laboriously), a wealth tax “will make it possible to avoid an endless inegalitarian spiral while preserving competition and incentives for new instances of primitive accumulation.”
I was raised by capitalists in a family culture of extreme competitiveness, and my early childhood experiences left me with a nihilistic worldview that held me in a deep depression until I was introduced to feminist and left-wing politics at the University of Victoria. Before that, I was a product of two years at a private school and two years at West Vancouver Secondary School, where one of my yearbooks boasted that the business program taught students to be the “next Donald Trump.”
Two traits I sometimes witnessed in my classmates still jar me today. The first is a belief in determinism, specifically that the good fortunes they were born with and experienced were “meant to be.” When we discussed the topic in class, I felt like one of the few who didn’t find the idea comforting. Instead, I remember asking if children born into poverty or with incurable illnesses were also “meant to be.” The question was hedged and the topic swiftly changed. The second trait I witnessed in my classmates is a belief in their own exceptionality—the idea that they could achieve whatever they wanted to if they just put forth enough effort. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except so many of them also gave themselves credit for what they could have achieved if only they had tried.
I have heard multiple rich kids dismiss low grades or failures because they didn’t try. I remember being ousted by my high-school friend group after one girl bragged that her Cs would be As if she’d just studied instead of partying in our first year of university, and I replied, bluntly: “All you’ve proven is that you were stupid enough not to try.” Similarly, I remember my younger brother basing his claims of genius on the fact that he put in a minimum effort but still passed his engineering classes, and I once heard an older cousin claim that the only reason he hadn’t tried to join Mensa was that he was too modest. This attitude, I think, is a reason why so many privileged kids assume they could have bootstrapped themselves out of poverty if they’d only had the opportunity—and also why they seem to embrace victim blaming.
I wish I could claim that, on average, the wealthiest in society are thoughtful, compassionate, and generous when it comes to their money, but my experience has been the opposite. I remember watching an executive chase down a cab driver, after drunkenly handing him a $100 bill instead of a ten, to get his money back. I also remember a high-school classmate who grew up in a mansion with a pool and hot tub telling me, while we were eating at a Denny’s, that he doesn’t believe in tipping servers. When we visited other countries on vacation, my parents would teach me and my brother to haggle with street vendors and shame me for being gullible and too easily taken advantage of when I paid higher prices. This is more than just a selection of anecdotes. It’s been well established that Canada’s rich give a smaller percentage of their income to charity each year than do people with substantially less wealth—and, when they do donate, they are likely to give to organizations that appeal to individual responsibility over communal values, according to recent studies.
I remember my mother encouraging me to apply for scholarships even though she and my father had more than enough money to pay for my education. I refused, but later, I witnessed kids with similar or greater wealth brag about awards they had received. Merit scholarships are biased toward rich kids, who have access to resources like private tutors, don’t need to work while attending school, can afford to play country-club sports, and often attend institutions which covertly inflate grades or otherwise bolster college applications; the private school I attended seemed to have more than twice as many annual “awards” as public schools had despite there being fewer students per private-school grade, so a good chunk of us, myself included, ended up with inflated resumés. When rich kids get scholarships, they talk about how good it will look—I don’t think this is a valid reason to give someone money they don’t need.
It’s been said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I’m no utopian, but I know there are better ways for us to live. I believe that policy changes to limit intergenerational inequality, the exploitation of labour, and the exploitation of the environment will lead to happier and healthier outcomes for everyone, the children and grandchildren of today’s “winners” included. They would free all of us to stop comparing ourselves to one another, to let go of mass consumption and the gospel of prosperity. It would make us all less lonely if we could abandon the cult of individualism to embrace mutual care over self-care, collaboration over competition, active change over positive thinking. For this, we need social services to ensure that the basic needs of all are met—for example, a universal basic income could empower workers to say “no” to exploitative and abusive employers as well as to jobs that are detrimental to society or the environment. How do we pay for all of this? Tax the rich. They might not realize it, but by taxing our billionaires and multimillionaires down to a more reasonable level of wealth, we would likely be doing them and children an enormous favour.
Research has shown that affluent children and teenagers are at a high risk for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse (researchers suggest that this is a result of isolation from parents and pressure to achieve). The rich have been shown to be more narcissistic and less empathetic, and narcissistic or “toxic” parenting can both cause narcissism in children and lead to significant emotional and physical health struggles for them. An intergenerational analysis is useful here. Consider that many of today’s wealthy families obtained their fortunes when the explosion in executive pay in the 1980s created a class of super-managers. This was sparked, in part, by a lowering of the top marginal tax rate in English-speaking countries, and it was bolstered by the dubious idea of meritocracy—or the belief that a small group of talented and hard-working individuals deserves incomes hundreds of times (or more) those of the people who work under them.
I’ve observed that wealthy men who identify themselves as “new money” can be contemptuous of “old money”—those who inherit their wealth instead of “earning” it. In my experience, this can even include contempt for their own heirs, which leads some children to compete with the family patriarch—to try to accumulate greater wealth and power than what they will already inherit, in an effort to prove themselves worthy of it. Many of the rich boys I went to high school with had identities tied to meeting or exceeding the wealth and success of their fathers. When I was younger, I remember hearing the romanticized story of my grandfather’s self-made, rags-to-riches success (and my father’s dramatic growth of the family business) and knowing, with remorse, that I would never have a similar sense of achievement.
Of course, the “struggles” of the wealthy pale in comparison to those on the bottom half of the socioeconomic ladder. My point here is not that we should pity rich children, but rather that they do not seem to benefit from inequality either, and we have good reason to fear the harm they are capable of. I believe capitalism rewards the entitlement and exploitation associated with narcissistic and authoritarian views. Theorists such as Mark Fisher, Christopher Lasch, and Aaron James have all tried to draw attention to how capitalism may be a cause of rising rates of narcissism (or, as James puts it, the “proliferation of assholes”). Lasch describes the narcissistic personality as “facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it, unappeasably hungry for emotional experiences with which to fill an inner void; terrified of aging and death . . . his devaluation of others, together with his lack of curiosity about them, impoverishes his personal life.” Considering all this, perhaps it’s no surprise that narcissistic or abusive individuals are more likely to become wealthy and powerful than people who have more empathy for others.
In Complex PTSD, Pete Walker describes how children who experience emotional abuse and neglect often overdevelop one of four defence responses (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn). “Children who are allowed to imitate the bullying of a narcissistic parent may develop a fixated fight response to being triggered,” he explains. “These types learn to respond to their feelings of abandonment with anger and subsequently use contempt, a toxic amalgam of narcissistic rage and disgust, to intimidate and shame others into mirroring them and into acting as extensions of themselves.” I believe we see this in the contempt many successful capitalists have for people who claim victimhood or who come to rely on what Walker calls “freeze” (escapism and addiction) or “fawn” (people-pleasing) responses to childhood trauma.
Widening the lens, conflict-resolution expert Bill Eddy groups a population’s typical responses to a “high conflict” leader or politician in the same way as Walker’s four F responses to abusive caregivers—loyalists “follow,” resisters “fight,” moderates “freeze” or become indecisive, and disenchanted members of the voting-age population “flee” by not participating. Eddy’s observations about how high-conflict politicians manufacture and exploit crises also mirror Naomi Klein’s descriptions of “disaster capitalism” in The Shock Doctrine.
As Gabor Maté notes in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, money, like many other things, can become addictive. This is not to say that wealth-hoarders aren’t responsible for their actions but rather that their hunger knows no end, and we need to change the system that empowers them. The rich can chew up and spit out the most sensitive among them—here, I think of Donald Trump’s older brother, who died of alcoholism; of the private older brother of Charles and David Koch and his legal battles with his siblings and efforts to distance himself from them; and of the countless stories of hazing and sexual assault within the Greek system, as well as its connections to binge drinking. I’ve been joking for years that I cannot bear to be sober around my family. Sometimes, I suspect that drugs and alcohol are necessary for the rich to live with themselves and one another. We certainly consume more booze than any other demographic. In the words of Brett Kavanaugh: “I liked beer; I still like beer.”
I don’t expect 0.1 percenters or their children to have sudden changes of heart. When you are the child of “winners,” it is difficult to choose what feels like losing. The knowledge that you have an advantage over others, combined with parental pressure to succeed or exceed and stigma around “relying” on others or “living off” your parents, can lead to complicated feelings of shame. A popular 2012 blog post, titled “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,” compares privilege to settings in a video game. But, for people who grow up believing competition is everything, it is more humiliating to lose a game played on “easy” than on a more difficult level. At the same time, everyone playing on “easy,” however much they might deny or conceal their privilege, should know perfectly well that this is the case.
So here, I speak to everyone else: the rich do not care about you (some might even hate you), and any rich person claiming otherwise is conning you. Call their bluff. The rich will not help you, will not save you through “job creation” or anything else. Corporate-tax cuts are associated with greater inequality, not more job opportunities. The average rich person is looking out only for himself. (I use the male pronoun because, according to Bloomberg’s recent list, only 13 percent of the world’s 500 richest people are women, and the easiest way for a woman to rise to the 1 percent is still through marriage or inheritance.)
We live in a world where the purpose of many high-paying jobs is to maintain the bureaucracy of capitalism and the myth of meritocracy while jobs that are essential to a healthy community—care workers and hygiene and sanitation workers, for example—are overworked and underpaid. Private schools and the parents who pay for their children to attend them receive subsidies and tax breaks while teachers at public schools across Canada suffer underfunding and overcrowding. The gig economy is “disrupting” industries such as hospitality and transportation, undermining worker protections. As Jia Tolentino points out in Trick Mirror, under late-stage capitalism, “the model of business success in the millennial era is that of dismantling social structures to suck up cash from whatever corners of life can still be exploited.”
Hypocrisy, in other words, abounds—or, as my CEO father has told me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” The contradiction is exemplified by another expression: “a rising tide lifts all boats,” which ignores that some displacement must happen for the tide to rise in the first place—that the water level is rising for those on the surface because so many boats are sinking. Billionaires could end extreme poverty; they don’t want to. As a 2017 Washington Post op-ed reminds us, “Being rich wrecks your soul. We used to know that.” The internet has opened up the world and provided us with the access to information we need to see through the gaslights. So why are we continuing to allow this rule by assholes?
I write this now because I’m exhausted and scared. We’re running out of time to save ourselves from climate change, and there’s an election coming up in Canada. I’m a child of the 0.1 percent, one of the thousands of children who, through no merit of our own, were born to potentially inherit a disproportionately large chunk of the world. While I am grateful for the financial resources my parents have invested in me, I want a more equitable world, one where every child is cared for and has the opportunity to nurture their talents. Bluntly, it is incomprehensible to me that we live in a country where some people have indoor swimming pools and others do not even have clean drinking water.
Dear Canada: for the love of humankind, the planet and its creatures, and the innate sense of justice I believe most of us carry, please support progressive tax changes (such as the wealth tax proposed by the NDP) and environmental action in the upcoming election. We need to elect politicians who will tax the rich, eliminate unjust corporate-tax loopholes, and crack down on tax havens, not politicians who have been bought by oil executives and other wealthy donors.
And, to my family and to the other children of the wealthy who may be reading this: it’s time to break out of our bubble and look at how much we consume. Wealthy children have a unique advantage in this fight: access to the sources of the problem. It’s time to put aside our egos and listen to the people most affected by inequality and climate disaster, to follow their leadership, to put aside our obsession with individual achievement and work collectively for a better world. It’s time to fight, to grab a sword and find out who we are. Who knows, we might even save our souls.