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Historian Lays Into Billionaires At Davos For Dodging The 1 Thing To Solve Inequality

“It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water,” Dutch historian Rutger Bregman said in his now-viral talk.

A historian’s remarks at a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, have gone viral after he told billionaires if they want to solve inequality, all they need to do is pay their taxes.

In a video posted by Now This and viewed more than 5 million times, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman heavily criticizes billionaires who talk about solving inequality, but fail to actually do the main thing he says will help. 

“I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but then, almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share,” Bregman said last week at the forum, which typically draws the world’s elite.

He expressed surprise that there was only one panel at Davos dedicated to the topic of tax avoidance, even though it’s a fundamental issue. “It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water,” he remarked.

Bregman took aim at billionaires and ultra-wealthy celebrities who try to persuade people that philanthropy is the answer to inequality.

“This is not rocket science,” he said. “We can talk for a very long time about all these stupid philanthropy schemes. We can invite Bono once more. But come on! We’ve got to be talking about taxes. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion.”

Bregman called out tech billionaire Michael Dell for asking people to name one country where a top tax rate of 70 percent had worked. “The United States, that’s where it has actually worked, in the 1950s,” he said. Under Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican president, tax rates for the ultra-rich peaked at just over 90 percent.

Bregman also noted the irony of Davos attendees flying to the Swiss mountain town on 1,500 private jets to hear broadcaster David Attenborough give a speech about how people are destroying the planet.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of anti-poverty NGO Oxfam International, who was on the panel with Bregman, also spoke about the global tax system, which she said allows $170 billion to be sheltered in tax havens instead of contributing to developing countries that need the revenue.

Executive director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima, sat the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, on Jan. 21, 2019.
Executive director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima, sat the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, on Jan. 21, 2019.

This figure comes from Oxfam’s recent report into wealth inequality, which found that just 26 billionaires possess as much wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion people. The report called for a more “human economy” with stronger tax systems for corporations and the super-rich that fund universal public services to help tackle inequality.

Inevitably, perhaps, the Davos speakers were challenged.

Ken Goldman, former CFO of Yahoo, pointed to the low U.S. unemployment rate and reduction in global poverty, and asked why the panelists were only talking about taxes.

“The quality of the jobs matters, it matters” fired back Byanyima. She talked about poultry processing workers in the U.S. needing to wear diapers because they were too scared to ask for bathroom breaks.

“Don’t tell me about low levels of unemployment,” Byanyima said. “You are counting the wrong things. You are not counting dignity of people. You’re counting exploited people.”

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CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the number of private jets coming into Davos as 15,000. It was 1,500.

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