The actor discusses the joys and challenges of filming his latest project, a western, titled The Ballad of Lefty Brown.
Actor Bill Pullman
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Tavis: Some might say that Chuck Collins was born lucky in the stratosphere of economic class, but when he was in his 20s, he gave it all away. Donating his inheritance to charity, he made his own way and has turned his life story into his mission.
He currently leads the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies and is the author of the book, “Born on Third Base” and co-author of a new report, “Billionaire Bonanza 2017: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us”. Chuck, good to have you on the program.
Chuck Collins: Great being here.
Tavis: Take me back to your story of being born on third base.
Collins: Well, I’m the great-grandson of the meat packer, Oscar Meyer, so bringing home the bacon had a different meaning in our family [laugh]. But I basically won the lottery at birth, but in my mid-20s, I was working with low-income tenants and mobile home park residents and I could start the see the inequalities that we’re living with just start to open up.
I guess I didn’t want to be part of it. I had this like front row seat of both what was happening to low-age workers, stagnant wages, but I also had this intimate front row seat to wealth creating wealth at the top of the economy among wealth holders. It just seemed broken to me.
Tavis: When you are an heir to the Oscar Meyer fortune and you give it away, how did your family respond to that?
Collins: Well, I did have some intense conversations with my family, but mostly I thanked them for having a debt-free education and some of the opportunities. To be honest, I gave away that money, but there’s so much other advantages.
You know, when you have four generations of economic stability, white male, college educated, no debt, I mean, there’s so much that’s almost sort of like hardwired and so much other advantage. That’s really what I try to talk about in this book is just how advantage works.
Tavis: Tell me more about how advantage works.
Collins: Well, I think right now we’re living at a time when advantage is almost like compounding at the top, meaning wealthy families help their kids get all kinds of head starts, access to tutors and, you know, intimate education experiences enrichment.
And then the other part of that is that disadvantage is also accelerating. I think there’s a sort of, I guess, a myth of deservedness. People think, oh, we’re all just showing up and we’re all just, you know, whoever works hard wins.
We don’t really understand like how there really is no level playing field, that some people are starting way five feet from the finish line and other people are starting with, you know, leg weights on their legs.
Tavis: What do you make of that, that the factoid that I started our program with tonight, basically three guys — and in case you’re wondering or haven’t already guessed who they are — Bezos at Amazon, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett. Those are the three guys I referenced a moment ago who have like combined more wealth than like over half the country. What do you make of that reality?
Collins: I guess the thing that’s most striking to me is the other part of what you said, which is the — put that next to the number of households with zero or negative wealth and then, you know, put maybe the next 20% have very little to fall back on.
So we’re not just talking about very poor people. We’re talking about 40% or 50% of the population that doesn’t have a lot of reserves. And then I think we’re looking at essentially a concentration of wealth and power that’s kind of feudal, you know.
Tavis: How do you have this conversation without hating on rich people?
Collins: Well, one thing I think is important and I’ve been having the opportunity to talk to wealthy individuals, philanthropic groups, is I say, you know, these extreme inequalities are bad for everybody. Of course, they’re obviously bad for people who are socially excluded and poor, but you don’t want your children and grandchildren to live in a kind of economic apartheid society.
This is what I say to people in the 1%. This is not where you want the society to go. It’s bad for your health, it’s bad for the economy. It creates booms and busts and instability. It’s bad for democracy, obviously, to have so much wealth and power. So you can kind of go down the list and make kind of almost a selfish case for why wealthy people should be very engaged in reversing these inequalities.
Tavis: And how do — because I’m curious, which won’t surprise you — how do 1%ers respond to that? I ask that with in the back of my head hearing that tape of Mitt Romney giving that campaign speech a few years ago where he was caught on tape sort of making fun of, you know.
So when you talk to these 1%ers and you try to make the case that it’s bad for the poor, obviously, but it’s also not good for them, how do they respond to that?
Collins: Well, some of them — and your Mitt Romney quote was about the makers and the takers. People have a powerful story that, okay, we’re the virtuous wealth creators. We’re the 1%. We’re the engines of the train, you know, whatever.
So some people aren’t going to suspend that myth. They’re comfortable living inside that. But there are a lot of people in my experience who understand that these inequalities actually really do undermine healthy education systems and opportunity for other people.
Like they understand that the game is sort of rigged in their favor. They don’t always know what to do about that. Some of them are like the Patriotic Millionaires network which is out there right now lobbying against this tax bill, so they’re very outspoken.
My sense, though, and this is why I enjoy talking to those groups, is there’s a lot of people waiting to be called to something bigger than consumption. I think my invitation is, hey, wealthy folks, 1%ers, come home. Bring the wealth back, put it into the real economy, and let’s fix the future, you know.
Tavis: You commented a moment ago, Chuck, about how this is bad for this — level of inequality is bad for democracy, and I agree. I’ve said so many times and have written about it that poverty threatens our very democracy. Poverty, income inequality, economic immobility, threatens our very democracy.
So when you made the comment that it’s bad for our democracy, then we’re on the same page. We agree on this. The question is whether or not those 1%ers you talk to understand that reality, that this is fundamentally undermining our democracy.
If they care nothing about anything else, they do care about living in a democracy. It’s a great country, so they don’t want to see the democracy — I would like to think, at least — they don’t want to see the democracy undermined because, you’re right, they’re coming after you at some point. Does that argument resonate with them? That it’s bad for democracy?
Collins: I think it cracks through in the sense that you say, look, a polarized economy creates a polarized culture in politics. You know, our last election was if half the population doesn’t share in the economic gains of the last 40 years, meaning real wages have been stagnant for four decades, a lot of people feel betrayed and angry.
Some of them go progressive populace, Bernie. Some of them go regressive populism and the politics of deflection. You can start to see even among, you know, sort of thoughtful people in the 1% saying, “You know, this is gonna create upheaval, division, cultural breakdown.” So it does connect to some people.
Tavis: Do you sense that they even care about the common good? I mean, they’ve got theirs. Do they care about the common good?
Collins: I think that some of them see that they want their legacy not to be accelerating inequalities. So, yeah, my sense is there’s a group of people who are comfortable using their wealth and power to get more wealth and power, and they have a theory or a story, a myth, that what’s good for them is good for everybody.
And there’s a large segment of people for whom that doesn’t work, that they actually see through the lived experience and sometimes through their children who are venturing out into the world and saying, “Mom and dad or grandpa and grandma, look what’s going on in the society.
Do you really want to live in a Brazil-like society where the rich live behind walls and drive their bulletproof Mercedes-Benz to the walled-in shopping area and there’s a shrinking middle class and a large group of desperate people?” I mean, this is where we’re going, you know.
Tavis: How badly do you think the current moment is going to exacerbate the problems that already exist, our current political moment, that is?
Collins: I mean, if our hope is to do no harm, I mean, the tax bill that’s looming now is kind of like throwing oil onto the fire. I mean, it’s going to only accelerate and worsen these inequalities. So a couple of years ago, I thought, well, we’ve been steadily moving toward growing inequality.
But maybe we’re going to like hit some kind of warp speed, some kind of really destabilizing, accelerated inequality. When will we have the first trillionaire in this country? Maybe not that far off.
Tavis: Bezos is the first American to hit three figures, $100 billion, yeah.
Collins: That’s right. Bill Gates was close, but Bezos is over that. In fact, since we did our Billionaire Bonanza study, his wealth has gone up almost another dozen billion dollars. So there was a month there where he was racking up about $13 million an hour just seeing the value of his Amazon stock rise.
I mean, the French economist Thomas Piketty warned us. He said, “If we don’t intervene in the trajectory we’re on, we’re going to become a hereditary aristocracy of wealth and power where the sons and daughters of today’s billionaires will dominate our politics, culture, philanthropy, economy.” That’s where we’re heading.
Tavis: And the danger in that is what?
Collins: Well, I would say first to the 1%, it’s actually bad for the economy when so few people have spending power and are borrowing money to just survive, and the rich are kind of almost gambling with their wealth. I mean, think about it. The richest 1% has 40% of the wealth. That’s $30 trillion dollars.
More and more of that money is going into like the gambling debt part of the economy, the speculative part, and that just creates volatility. So that and the social and cultural breakdown. That’s, I think, the message is you don’t want — you know, brother 1%er, you don’t want to go down this road. That’s not where we want to all go.
Tavis: The book is called “Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good”, written by one of the heirs to the Oscar Meyer fortune, Chuck Collins. Chuck, good to have you on the program.
Collins: Thank you, Tavis.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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