A Tale of Two Billionaires

America is writing a new chapter in its history books that could be entitled: “A Tale of Two Billionaires.”

On one side of the story is Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the popular outdoor apparel company Patagonia. Chouinard made headlines this week when he did what most billionaires would consider unthinkable: he gave his entire fortune away. Chouinard transferred ownership of Patagonia, valued at $3 billion, to a trust and a nonprofit working to combat climate change. Best of all, he did it without skirting any taxes.

Chouinard is proof that, if they want to, billionaires can be on the right side of the fight for fairness, justice, and a healthier planet. Patagonia has long been a leader in treating its workers with respect and dignity, and his and his family’s decision to give away their wealth further proves that he is willing to “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.”

On the other side of the story is Warren Buffett, one of the most famous philanthropists in the world and many people’s go-to example of “one of the good billionaires.” Buffett has put on a fantastic show about wanting to use his fortune to do good in the world. He famously penned a New York Times op-ed where he voiced his chagrin over paying a lower tax rate than his secretary, which prompted then-President Obama to name his iconic “Buffett Rule” after him.

But this show is just that: a show. In reality, Buffett may say the right things more than other billionaires, but he still doesn’t follow through when it comes to getting his hands dirty in the fight for economic justice.

Buffett is currently at the heart of an ongoing dispute between some of the country’s biggest railway carriers and rail worker unions demanding better working conditions. His company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns one of the country’s largest railway carriers and worst abusers of rail workers, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), making Buffett one of the largest financial beneficiaries of the atrocious conditions rail workers have been forced to endure. Thankfully, a proposed strike on the part of rail workers has been temporarily averted (with a deal that many union members still seem unhappy with), but Buffett has been totally silent on the issue. He played no role whatsoever in making this happen and will likely continue his passive inaction in the weeks and months ahead.

Warren Buffett has long been considered an example for other billionaires to follow, but the contrast this week between Chouinard’s decision and Buffett’s inaction shows just how empty Buffett’s words truly are. This week, we’re shining a spotlight on these two kinds of billionaires and how their action (and inaction) impacts the rest of us.

‘The Worst and Most Egregious Attendance Policy’ is Pushing Railroad Workers to the Brink by Aaron Gordon
At the heart of the ongoing dispute between freight railroad unions and railway carriers like Warren Buffett’s BNSF is carriers’ points-based attendance policy. Essentially, the system requires workers to be “on call” 90% of the time and penalizes them for missing work – even for things as simple as doctor’s visits or funerals – up to the point of termination. Railroad workers are rightfully fed up with this draconian policy and the loss of any semblance of a work-life balance which it has caused.

28 Freight Rail Workers Tell Us What They Want You to Know About Their Lives by Aaron Gordon
Before the tentative agreement between freight unions and railway carriers was struck this morning, Gordon (one of the best reporters covering the real-world impact of the rail negotiations) spoke with 28 freight workers and their wives about their personal experiences with the carriers’ points-based attendance policy. Their stories are harrowing, and we recommend taking the time to read them. They talk about their physical and emotional exhaustion and the loss of valuable time with family and friends, but also their inexplicable anger towards greedy corporate executives like Buffett who made it all happen in order to enrich themselves and their shareholders.

The mobile-home trap: How a Warren Buffett empire preys on the poor by Mike Baker and Daniel Wagner
This article is a few years old, but we wanted to highlight it for you today to show that Buffett’s willingness to exploit the less-fortunate and less-powerful is not a thing of the past or a one-off for railroads – it is a consistent pattern. Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns Clayton Homes, which claims to build affordable mobile-homes for low-income Americans, but ultimately ends up swindling them with predatory sales practices, surprise fees, and exorbitantly high interest rates.

Elon Musk’s $5.7 Billion Stock Gift Had Some Surprising Benefits by Steve Latham
As it happens, Warren Bufett isn’t the only billionaire who talks a big game about helping others while centering his own financial benefit – in many ways, he’s more like Elon Musk than Yvon Chouinard. In the last few years, Musk has made crowd-pleasing splashes in the headlines when he revealed his humble $45,000 home and committed via Twitter to sell stock to solve world hunger. If you remember, news broke back in February that Musk also had made a very generous $5.7 billion donation to an unnamed charity. But only now are we learning just how big of a tax break Musk may be getting from that donation: $4.6 billion. How did Musk manage to do this? By giving away 5 million shares of Tesla, Inc. to his charity of choice instead of writing a regular check. The IRS allows you to deduct non-cash gifts (up to a certain amount), but not cash gifts, so that way Musk avoided billions in capital gains taxes.

Billionaire No More: Patagonia Founder Gives Away the Company by David Gelles
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is truly an incredible example for the rest of the ultra-rich. His decision to give virtually all of his wealth away is even more remarkable for how rare it is. Unlike Buffett, who has pledged to give away 99% of his wealth during his lifetime yet still sits on a fortune of nearly $100 billion (tens of billions more than when he made that pledge to begin with), Chouinard actually followed through. And he did it all without skirting taxes.

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