He was the 30-year old Dutch historian who became a viral sensation at Davos by saying that the way to prosperity is not through philanthropy but with higher taxes, not something the attending oligarchs wanted to hear. He says that he had become irritated by all the billionaires at the meeting patting each other on the back for thinking they were improving the world by talking about “participation, justice, equality and transparency” but really they were deflecting attention away from the fact that they are a big part of the problem because of their tax avoidance that results in them not paying their fair share.
He talks about how he is part of generational shift in thinking.
“I am part of a broad social movement. Ten years ago, it would have unimaginable for some random Dutch historian to go viral when talking about taxes. Yet here we are.”
As a historian, Bregman noted the most successful period for capitalism occurred in the years after the second world war, when the top rate of tax in the US was above 90%.
“This is about saving capitalism,” he said. “Most innovation has come about through government spending. During the golden age period [after the second world war], there were way higher taxes on wealth, property, inheritance and top incomes. That’s what we need today if we are going to tame this beast called capitalism.”
He said he felt compelled to change the text of his remarks after a couple of earlier encounters with the oligarchs at the meeting.
[H]e grew more irritated as the week wore on. Bregman gave a speech to a dinner of technology chief executives and then spoke at one of Davos’s private sessions, off limits to journalists. There he was surprised and maddened by the pushback when he mentioned tax. “One American looked at me as if I was from another planet,” he said.
As a result, Bregman decided to change his plan for a panel on inequality organised by Time magazine on the final morning of Davos. “I went to my hotel room and memorised what I wanted to say by heart,” he said.
“I more or less ignored the question asked by the moderator and gave my speech instead. It was mainly to ease my own conscience: someone has to say what needs to be said.”
Bregman, 30, is not entirely surprised at the reaction. He said he is part of a generation not traumatised by the cold war and radicalised by the financial crisis of a decade ago. “When we say what’s needed are higher taxes and the response is ‘that’s communism’, we say ‘whatever’,” he said.
This generational shift is why the charges of “that’s socialism!” thrown at Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, once so effective in the US, are not only not bringing them down, they are embracing it.