People & Places

Heir who gave away a fortune aims to end the class war

Chuck Collins
Author Chuck Collins speaks at Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro during a Vermont tour featuring stops in Burlington and Shelburne. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
Chuck Collins understands why the 99 percent of Americans suffering from income inequality want to upend the status quo. But the great-grandson of meatpacker turned mogul Oscar Mayer knows those at the top don’t see or feel much incentive to follow suit.

That’s why the New Englander is traveling the nation telling people flush with dollars why they need to work for change.

“There is a top-down class war against the non-rich,” he says. “But there is also a bottom-up class antagonism expressed in rhetorical attacks against the rich. Can we suspend the economic class hostilities long enough to consider what would move humanity forward?”

Collins aims to answer that question in his new book “Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good,” recently released by White River Junction’s Chelsea Green Publishing.

“The book I’ve written has two audiences — people with wealth and everyone else,” the author said this week in Brattleboro during a Vermont tour featuring stops in Burlington and Shelburne.

Collins’ 288-page paperback calls for a ceasefire in the nation’s class war, starting with curbing attacks on “the haves” by “the have nots.”

“I understand why people are angry, but what I have learned is when someone feels hated, they don’t want to be part of a movement,” he told a Brattleboro audience at Everyone’s Books. “We need to invite the wealthy home.”

Collins speaks of the second group firsthand: “My great-grandfather came from Germany with an amazing recipe for sausage,” he said of the man whose small butcher shop is now a billion-dollar company. “Bringing home the bacon means something different in my family.”

Chuck Collins
Chuck Collins’ new book “Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good” is being released by White River Junction’s Chelsea Green Publishing. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Growing up in a leafy Detroit suburb with such schoolmates as Mitt Romney, Collins gave away his half-million-dollar trust fund at age 26 (it would be worth $7 million today) and now works at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank where he directs its Program on Inequality and the Common Good and co-edits the website

Collins, whose cabin in Guilford gives him reason to visit Vermont, said the nation’s deep divisions over the recent presidential election make his message more pertinent than ever.

“Younger people are feeling the brunt of this polarization, with deteriorating livelihoods, crushing debt, and stagnant wages,” he writes in his book. “All these forces undermine excellence and opportunity — and the quality of life for everyone.”

The challenge, Collins, is to convince those with money to care.

“We need to stand in solidarity against the rapacious rich,” he writes. “But to succeed, we need allies among the reachable wealthy. We must find ways to engage and invite the 1 percent home, back to the table, to be partners in transforming the future.”

“Coming home means sharing our wealth and paying our fair share of taxes,” the author continues. “I urge us to move investment capital out of the old fossil fuel economy, offshore accounts, and speculative financial investments — and redirect it to the new relocalized economy, including regional food and energy systems and enterprises that broaden wealth ownership, such as cooperatives.”

Collins’ book aims to explain the wealthy to the working class (“Privilege has a narcotic effect, boosting our comfort and sense of importance, but ultimately disconnecting us from our neighbors and our own better nature”) as well as to tell the rich why they need to help the poor (“Charity is not a substitute for public investment and taxation”).

It also views the problem of climate change as a place of common ground.

“All of humanity — billionaire hedge fund managers, suburban soccer moms, and Bangladeshi farmers — is now wound together, our fate linked to our ability to respond to a planetary challenge bigger than anything we’ve faced before.”

Collins, whose Northeast tour will take him to Washington, D.C. later this month, believes his unique position affords him the chance to help bridge the nation’s economic divide.

“I’ve had this front row seat to the stagnation of wages, but I’ve also had this front row seat to people with tremendous wealth that is multiplying,” he concluded in Brattleboro. “The Trump election — and the threats from it — are engaging a lot of people. The pressure will continue to build for a realignment. I’m an optimist person in a very bleak moment.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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  • John McClaughry

    Mr. Collins arrives at a key concept – expanded ownership: “enterprises that broaden wealth ownership, such as cooperatives.” Coops have an important role, but the real task is to change the financial and tax systems so they operate to give every American a realistic chance to accumulate ownership of worthwhile property. This is the polar opposite of a coercive government confiscating the wealth of the rich to bestow upon the poor (which is why Marx and Engels so bitterly opposed it). Alas, I can’t think of one prominent figure who is championing this concept, since Sen. Russell Long left the Senate in 1981 (died 2003).

    • Many of those born with a proverbial silver spoon, and I know and have known several of them, should resist the assignment of their personal misgivings to the rest of us. ‘The Rich’, as Mr. Collins calls them, are not alike. They are not all ‘rapacious’. And ‘The Poor’ are not alike either.

      Start a business, don’t just write about those who do. Solicit clients. Contend with government regulation. Hire employees. Learn that, with or without wealth, social responsibility dictates mutual and personal success for all. Most importantly, understand pitfalls of ‘indiscriminate charity’, that wealth and responsibility are relative.

      “The verdict rests with the best and most enlightened public sentiment. The community will surely judge and its judgments will not often be wrong.” Andrew Carnegie (The Gospel of Wealth). Read it.

    • Doug Hoffer

      “confiscating the wealth of the rich to bestow upon the poor”

      really? that’s all we do with tax revenues? in fact, we all pay taxes to support a variety of public services that benefit all citizens; and it’s not coercive if majorities in Congress and the legislature approve them

      • “..we all pay taxes to support a variety of public services that benefit all citizens..”

        This assessment assumes, of course, that an elected legislature invests all tax revenue wisely, or at least, more wisely than when revenues are invested by those who earned the money in the first place.

        For my money, I prefer to invest in the ‘makers’, not the ‘takers’.

    • Matt Cropp

      Agree that expanded ownership is truly key, and not discussed enough as the dominant discourse tends to align around the “government redistribution vs. profit maximizing business” dichotomy. A few practical ways folks on this thread can get involved:

      1. Sell to Your Employees – If you’re a business owner looking to exit, consider selling to your employees via a worker co-op or ESOP; get in touch with the Vermont Employee Ownership Center for details.
      2. Invest in Co-ops – The simplest first step is to do your “banking” with a credit union. Once you’ve got that knocked out, setting up a Self Directed IRA can allow you to put some retirement dollars in the Co-op Fund of New England and other co-op focused investment funds. Finally, if you want to get actively involved in supporting co-ops, a group of us are replicating an investment club in MN that invests exclusively in co-ops; if you’re interested in getting involved:

  • Class has been in issue in ‘Murika for 400 years. It is an issue that is not going to go away by writing a book. And it is only going to get worse!

    • Neil Johnson

      It is getting worse because of monopolies and holding companies exerting way too much control. Our reps in Washington are all too happy to take a lobbyist money and few have the courage to stand up for what is right. All while so many in America believe the lobbyist/corporate controlled media are actually news organization and not the propaganda machine they truly are. Yeah ‘Murika has changed, we’re further from the ideals.

  • Tom Sullivan

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” Thomas Jefferson

    • While being ‘created equal’, there is nothing in Jefferson’s treatise saying everyone must have an equal outcome, other than the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness as each individual sees fit.

  • Neil Johnson

    A major cause of all problems are monopolies and holding companies that buy all the competition, as the example of Unilever owning Ben and Jerry’s along with Hagen Daz. Without a break up these companies there is no incentive to be competitive with pricing their products or competitive for good skilled labor.

    He is correct in outlining that envy and it’s promotion will get us nowhere but hating each other and tearing others down.

    Our focus and primary objective of earning more money. having more money and money being the end all be all of valuing and judging a person needs to change. We need to focus on things that are worthy, time tested and true. Financial net worth is not the answer. When we as people and country change our focus in the right direction we will receive the benefits of a society based upon truth.

    • Paul Richards

      “A major cause of all problems are monopolies and holding companies that buy all the competition…”
      This methodology is used in our education system which is a huge, corrupt monopoly that helps no one but the unions and the democrats.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    It would be better if all the ‘programs’ that are ‘designed’ to help people were eliminated and replaced with a basic guaranteed annual income.

    One local mother with 2 disabled children had to quit her job because of the avalanche of redundant paperwork necessary to get help for her kids.

    “…The idea isn’t new. As Frum notes, Friederich Hayek endorsed it. In 1962, the libertarian economist Milton Friedman advocated a minimum guaranteed income via a “negative income tax.” In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” Richard Nixon unsuccessfully tried to pass a version of Friedman’s plan a few years later, and his Democratic opponent in the 1972 presidential election, George McGovern, also suggested a guaranteed annual income.,,,”.
    The Atlantic

    • A guaranteed income guarantees nothing. It only moves the starting line.

      • Clyde Cook

        And that guaranteed income will cause some folks to lose what little ambition they may have, Question, what amount of garamteed income is enough and where? 25000. In New York City is quite different than in a rural area. I think it escapes most folks fantasizing of these redistribution schemes that humans are all different. If you confiscated every dollar of wealth in the US today and redistributed it equally to every soul,you would find that 10 or 15 years later the inequality would be back. Some folks with the newfound wealth would be smart about it, others, not so much. It’s an inescapable fact of human nature. One person once said that money does nothing but amplify one’s personality. We all know very generous people that are dirt poor, and very wealthy. And we know some that are dirt poor, and very wealthy, and they are not very nice individuals in either case.

  • Richard Czaplinski

    A good question to ask regarding this issue of inequality and the concentration of wealth is: How much money does a person or a family need to lead a decent life? We are all in this together and there are a lot of big problems that could be addressed if the resources were available to create a safe environment for us all.

    • John McClaughry

      Who decides how much my family needs?

      • Neil Johnson

        What a family needs and wants are so vastly different. But our society doesn’t even understand need, it’s entitlement, it’s about luxury. There is no harm in working a couple extra hours, rarely does anyone get ahead on 30 hours per week. You have to be truly gifted/ or lucky to fall into something like this.

        To improve ones life, one must be grateful for what they have first. If you aren’t you are not in a mindset for positive change.

      • Phyllis North

        Who decides? Your family, not the government. But many Vermont families are deciding they can get by on a moderate amount, lessening the burden on the environment caused by our consumption-oriented economy.

  • David C.Austin

    For most of this country’s history, a majority of the population either owned or was employed by a farm or small business. People felt a connection to the community in which they lived. The nuclear family was the norm. Hard work and sound decision making often resulted in significant equity in whatever endeavor one undertook. Those who were successful were admired, not vilified. They built libraries, hospitals, and schools. Civic responsibility was expected, and generally practiced by those who had achieved success. In the last 50 years or so, this has become the exception. The means by which wealth is accumulated are fundamentally different than in the past. Government has grown exponentially, is significantly more complex, and is less efficient and responsive. Increasingly, the nuclear family is no longer the primary unit of society. Thanks to 50 years of failed social and economic policies,the path to success is no longer clear, and the rewards are no longer easily understood. .