Superwealthy mobilize to mute attacks on rich
Billionaires are using speeches, open letters and television appearances to defend themselves and the richest 1 percent of the population targeted by Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.
NEW YORK — Jamie Dimon, the highest-paid chief executive officer among those of the six biggest U.S. banks, turned a question at an investors conference this month into an occasion to defend wealth.
"Acting like everyone who's been successful is bad and because you're rich you're bad, I don't understand it," the JPMorgan Chase CEO responded to a question about hostility toward bankers. "Sometimes there's a bad apple, yet we denigrate the whole."
Dimon, 55, whose 2010 compensation was $23 million, has joined billionaires including hedge-fund manager John Paulson and Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus in using speeches, open letters and television appearances to defend themselves and the richest 1 percent of the population targeted by Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.
If successful businesspeople don't go public to share their stories and talk about their troubles, "they deserve what they're going to get," said Marcus, 82, a founding member of Job Creators Alliance, a Dallas-based nonprofit that develops talking points and op-ed pieces aimed at "shaping the national agenda," according to the group's website. He said he isn't worried that speaking out might make him a target of protesters.
"Who gives a crap about some imbecile?" Marcus said. "Are you kidding me?"
The organization assisted John Allison IV, a director of BB&T, the ninth-largest U.S. bank, and Staples co-founder Thomas Stemberg with media appearances this month.
"It still feels lonely, but the chorus is definitely increased," said Allison, 63, a former CEO of the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based bank and now a professor at Wake Forest University's business school.
At a lunch in New York, Stemberg and Allison shared their disdain for Section 953(b) of the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires public companies to disclose the ratio between their CEOs' compensation and employee medians, according to Allison. The rule, still being fine-tuned by the Securities and Exchange Commission, is "incredibly wasteful" because it takes up time and resources, he said. Stemberg called the rule "insane" in an email.
"Instead of an attack on the 1 percent," Allison said, "let's call it an attack on the very productive. This attack is destructive."
The top 1 percent of taxpayers made at least $343,927 in 2009, the last year data is available, according to the Internal Revenue Service. While average household income increased 62 percent from 1979 through 2007, the top 1 percent's more than tripled, a Congressional Budget Office report shows. As a result, the United States had greater income inequality in 2007 than China or Iran, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook.
Not all affluent Americans are on the defensive. Billionaire Warren Buffett, 81, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, has called for increasing taxes on the wealthy, as has Patriotic Millionaires, a group whose supporters include Ask.com co-founder Garrett Gruener and Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, according to its website.
"Rich businesspeople like me don't create jobs," Nick Hanauer, co-founder of aQuantive, a Seattle online advertising company Microsoft purchased for about $6 billion in 2007, wrote recently in an op-ed piece. "Let's tax the rich like we once did and use that money to spur growth."
Two of every three Americans support raising taxes on households with incomes of at least $250,000, according to a Bloomberg-Washington Post national poll conducted in October.
Asked if he were willing to pay more taxes in a Nov. 30 interview with Bloomberg Television, Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman spoke about lower-income families who pay no income tax.
"You have to have skin in the game," said Schwarzman, 64. "I'm not saying how much people should do. But we should all be part of the system."
Some of Schwarzman's capital gains at Blackstone, the world's largest private-equity firm, are taxed at 15 percent, not the 35 percent top marginal income-tax rate. Attacking the banking system is a mistake because it contributes to "a healthier economy," he said.
Paulson, the hedge-fund manager who became a billionaire by betting against the housing market, also has said the rich benefit society.
"The top 1 percent of New Yorkers pay over 40 percent of all income taxes," Paulson's company said in an emailed statement Oct. 11, the day Occupy Wall Street protesters left a mock tax-refund check at its president's New York town house.
Tom Golisano, 70, billionaire founder of payroll processor Paychex and a former New York gubernatorial candidate, said this month that there are examples of excess but that it's "ridiculous" to blame everyone who is rich.
"If I hear a politician use the term 'paying your fair share' one more time, I'm going to vomit," he said.
Ken Langone, 76, another Home Depot co-founder, said he isn't embarrassed by his success.
"I am a fat cat, I'm not ashamed," he said last week from his New York home. "If you mean by fat cat that I've succeeded, yeah, then I'm a fat cat. I stand guilty of being a fat cat."
Peter Schiff, CEO of Westport, Conn.-based broker-dealer Euro Pacific Capital, is delivering the message directly. In October, he went to Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, where Occupy Wall Street protesters had camped out, with a sign that read "I Am the 1%" and a video camera.
"Somebody needs to do it," Schiff said.
Schiff, 48, disclosed assets of at least $64.7 million before losing the 2010 Connecticut Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat, according to filings. He's wealthier now, even though his taxes are "more than a medieval lord would have taken from a serf," he said.
A clip from Schiff's video was used in a Nov. 1 segment of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," in which comedian John Hodgman, wearing a cravat, called the wealthy a "persecuted minority." He asked that the phrase "moneyed Americans" replace "the 1 percent."
Neither term appeared in a Nov. 28 open letter to President Obama from hedge-fund manager Leon Cooperman, the Omega Advisors chairman and former CEO of Goldman Sachs's money-management unit. Capitalists "are not the scourge that they are too often made out to be" and the wealthy aren't "a monolithic, selfish and unfeeling lot," Cooperman wrote. They make products that "fill store shelves at Christmas" and provide health care to millions.
Cooperman, 68, said he can't walk through the St. Andrews Country Club dining room in Boca Raton, Fla., without being thanked for speaking up. At least four people expressed gratitude Dec. 5 while he was eating an egg-white omelet, he said.
"You'll get more out of me," the billionaire said, "if you treat me with respect."
Bloomberg News reporters Cristina Alesci and Michael J. Moore contributed to this report.
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