November 11th, 2019
Reader alert: This piece, as #354 and #355, has a clear public policy point of view that many will find political.
One cannot be in the philanthropy world, the financial management industry, or the demographic field very long without hearing about the massive multi-trillion-dollar transfer of wealth. The amounts to be transferred from generation to generation boggle the mind. Surely it is so great to be transformative.
While I am neither an economist nor a wealth manager, I have no doubt that those numbers are derived from real data. I also have no doubt that wealth managers are hyperventilating over the fees that will accrue when these monies are invested, and fundraisers for both nonprofit and for-profit funds are salivating in anticipation. [I am only slightly exaggerating but in conference after conference, I see their evident enthusiasm.]
More relevant is that I am absolutely sure that some heirs and their families will be well cared for, as they used to say a century or more ago, “beyond the dreams of avarice.” But only some, and that’s the point.
If the transfer were in anyway broad-based and really likely to raise the living standards of everyone, the demographic projections wouldn’t be as bleak as they seem. Why is it that whole swaths of millennials assume that they will not achieve the financial security that their parents had, that they see home ownership as elusive, that they wonder how health care and social security and college loans will be paid for? And what about all those McMansions that were supposed to be guaranteed nest eggs that are now waiting and waiting for buyers?
Even after one of the longest economic expansions in history, middle class incomes are barely covering what they did a generation ago and certainly don’t reflect this great run-up in stocks or provide cushions against emergencies.
Now, let’s turn to the philanthropy piece of this: Initiatives like The Giving Pledge [full disclosure, I have a very peripheral connection] are intended to give some of those billions a place to do some good. And some of the signers are being very proactive with their funds to expand their giving to non-profits or at-risk populations or systemic social issues. But many who have committed at least 50% of their net worth to philanthropy have chosen to fulfill their pledge by funding their foundations upon their death. Far be it for me to malign that decision, but let’s be honest, that means that in many cases only 5% of that money will be distributed on an annual basis and only at some uncertain time in the future. That counts and that money is certainly important but hardly a game changing transfer of wealth to the non-profit sector. To date, sad to say, under 300 billionaires have signed on. There are many others who have yet to announce their intentions.
When looking closely at this massive “transfer of wealth”, it becomes ever more evident that it is a boon to the already wealthy, and a smidgeon to the vast majority of the rest of the population. If there has been an inordinate, and morally dubious, concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever-shrinking percentage of the population over the last years, this transfer is destined to intensify and solidify that oligarchy.
There are some public policy strategies that can help that transfer be more widely enjoyed. Most of these do indeed have an impact on the highest net worth among us; none of these will have the slightest impact on their lifestyle. I am sure that these 7 are not an exhaustive list, but I do feel that together they may begin to redress some of this accumulated equity imbalance:
1. Eliminate the cap on taxable earnings subject to social security tax. That is the single most regressive tax – with a much greater burden on lower- and middle-income earners, and an exemption to the highest.
2. Tax capital gains at the same rate as other taxable income.
3. Support some sort of guaranteed medical care for everyone. I doubt such a national insurance policy will ever come close to what congress grants itself or what top executives in the corporate sector receive, but it is an inequity widely written about. [I am purposely not applying terms such as “Medicare for all” or “Obama Care” etc. They have become so loaded and weaponized that it is impossible to discuss the true underlying issue.]
4. Support policies that restore SNAP funding to levels that make the measurable difference in reducing food insecurity for children, the working poor, etc. Studies show the impact in the workplace, in school performance, and in public health when the population receives adequate nutrition – or doesn’t. The financial return to the society as a whole will more than outweigh the short-term public expenditures.
5. Support a minimum wage that doesn’t guarantee continued poverty. Assuming that the working poor can actually live on $15/hour in almost any municipality in the USA is willful neglect. The deteriorating impact on society of the growing homeless population, even of people working full time, is measurable. We can argue about employment statistics, but it is unconscionable that those numbers are on the backs of full-time workers who can barely afford housing.
6. Support the development of reliable, regular, and widespread public transportation. Those without access to public transportation are fully reliant on private automobiles. For many, that is the second largest annual expenditure after housing. And, needless to say, that impacts lower income folks the most. If one can provide the kind of public transportation taken for granted in many parts of the world, it would immediately provide an increase in net spendable income, reduce the palpable tension in the workplace caused by driving to and from work [according to several studies], and help to sustain engaged community involvement [that has dropped precipitously over the last 2 generations].
7. Restore Pell Grants and the equivalent to the levels they were originally intended. When developed, they were the second most significant source of higher education tuition funding [after the GI Bill]. Millions of lower middle-class people earned college degrees through those grants without incurring back-breaking debt. As those grants have been eroded over time, they have moved from being the “leg-up” to just another bureaucratic burden with minimal return. Simply restoring those funds to the level they were originally intended [inflation adjusted] would make a huge difference in reducing the $trillions of debt too many college graduates carry.
Now, of course, while some of this will require increases in taxes, let’s be clear -that is why we have taxes. “Tax” is not a dirty word – taxes are how we express our individual commitments to having a functioning society. An equitable tax system, without undue breaks for those who need it the least, is the truest form of a “trickle down” economy.
Now I know that some lobbyists will argue with every one of the 7 points, and I am not so naïve to think that whoever gets elected will find it simple to enact public policy that easily. But I do call upon those who will be the primary beneficiaries of the much-celebrated massive wealth transfer to lead the way. For most, it will be painless.
Several years ago, I was meeting with a very wealthy family in another country. The scion, the oldest of Gen-2, told me that he and his peers felt very bad that so many people in their community could not afford the kinds of wedding celebrations that they had. Did I have any thoughts on how they could address that social stigma and provide the less wealthy with the kinds of weddings the wealthy took for granted? I asked this fellow if he and his fellow wealthy had ever considered toning down their own over the top ostentation that only reinforced the wealth divide and played into that very stigma. It would reduce the social pressure and the need to create an entire funding enterprise. It had never occurred to him or his peers. It caught him off guard to suggest that their behavior sets the standard that leads to that perception of inadequacy and that they might have a role to play in reducing that divide.
Perhaps it is time for those whose wealth exceeds any possibility of human consumption to ask themselves that question. It might make a modest increase in taxes more palatable, and it might lead to a level of empathy that would change the social discourse in less judgmental and patronizing ways.
And ultimately make that transfer of wealth something all can celebrate.