Abigail Disney has always been very, very rich, or, as she describes it, “too rich”. The money came with her name: she is the granddaughter of Roy Disney who, with his brother Walt, founded the Walt Disney Company in 1923. Disney, 61, refuses to say how much she has, but acknowledges she would have been a billionaire in her own right had she not realised in her 20s that it was her fortune that was making her miserable, and decided to start giving it away.
She has been donating to good causes ever since – $72m (£52m) and counting, mostly to groups helping women in prison, women living with HIV, and victims of domestic violence. But giving it away is no longer enough. She wants the tax collector to take more money, not only from her, but from “all of the absurdly rich people across the world”.
“We’ve long known that the world is hugely unequal,” says Disney. “But now the pandemic has really shown it to all of us, and no one in all conscience can continue to ignore it.” Disney is speaking over Zoom from a pristine white sofa in her San Francisco home. Today, she looks more hippy chic than heiress: her light-brown hair falls in long, gentle curls, and there is a discreet peace dove tattooed on the inside of her wrist.
“It is like when your kids have a bath, and you pull the plug out and slowly all the little toys at the bottom are revealed,” says Disney. “That is what has happened here: now we all know what is going on under the surface.” As well as killing more than 2.5 million people, the pandemic and global lockdown response has plunged some 150 million more into “extreme poverty”, according to the World Bank. The Washington-based institution described Covid-19 as “a heat-seeking missile speeding toward the most vulnerable in society”.
“Throughout the pandemic, the poorest have been forced to continue going to work, risking their lives, while the rich stay at home,” Disney says. “And those going to work in life-saving essential jobs, are paying more [proportionally] in tax than the wealthy who are safe at home.”
Disney worries that society risks slipping back into a “Dickensian world” unless the really rich realise “we are all humans at the end of the day, and we need to look after each other. You know, these billionaires are modern-day, miserly Ebenezer Scrooges. Because they are looking straight at Tiny Tim and saying: ‘No, fuck you, I won’t pay for your crutches,’” she says. “It may sound extreme, but they really are.”
Abigail Disney is part of a small but growing group among the super-rich, calling for a wealth tax to help fund the recovery from the pandemic. The Patriotic Millionaires movement, of which she is a longstanding member and key spokesperson, started in 2010 with only a handful of signatures on a 163-word open letter, including the musician Moby and Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream co-founder Ben Cohen. It has grown into a global organisation with more than 200 members, including Chuck Collins, heir to the Oscar Mayer hotdog fortune; Morris Pearl, a former managing director at BlackRock; Danish-Iranian billionaire Djaffar Shalchi; and Sir Stephen Tindall, the founder of New Zealand’s largest retailer, the Warehouse Group. They describe themselves as “proud traitors to their class” united in their concern about the “destabilising concentration of wealth and power”.
These members argue that, instead of leaving the super-rich to splash their billions on philanthropic vanity projects such as opera houses and museums, higher taxes should be used to fund public services, welfare and tackle growing inequality. Disney wants taxes on the super-rich to fund universal medical treatment and education in the US and throughout the world. This week, she will help launch the UK and European chapter of Patriotic Millionaires, pressuring world governments to “raise taxes on people like us. Immediately. Substantially. Permanently”.
Disney does not have a fixed idea of exactly how a wealth tax should work or at what rate it should be set; she just wants it to start now. “Yesterday is not soon enough,” she says, as her dog Forkie, a morkie (a cross between a Maltese and Yorkshire terrier), crashes into her tablet. (Her other dogs are called Quincy and RBG, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Disney was a fan of the late supreme court judge, who she described as “the soul of social change”.)
Wealth is meant to feel like the magic answer, right? But after a certain point it starts not being true
Of the wealth tax, Disney says: “I think it should kick in at around $50m [£36m] and up. Something has to say: ‘OK, you’re fine. Right now, we need to figure out how to help all the people who aren’t fine, and your money is going to pay for it.’”
An annual wealth tax of just 2% on those with more than $50m – as proposed by US senator Elizabeth Warren – would raise more than $4tn, enough money to overhaul the entire US public education system. Warren amended her plan this month to call for a 3% “Ultra-Millionaire Tax Act” targeting people with more than $1bn to help pay for the economic pain the pandemic has caused. “The ultra-rich and powerful have rigged the rules in their favour so much that the top 0.1% pay a lower effective tax rate than the bottom 99%,” Warren said. “And billionaire wealth is 40% higher than before the Covid crisis began.”
Disney says she “loves” Warren, and dismisses arguments from those on the right who claim a wealth tax would drive the rich overseas. “It would not prevent anyone from wanting to live in the United States, and would not prevent anyone from being wildly more wealthy than anyone ever needs to be.” In her ideal world, there would be a cap on personal wealth, but even she thinks that is too radical an idea to propose making into law. “I think there is such a thing as too much money,” she says. “And I think that’s a billion. In fact, I don’t really know how you couldn’t figure out how to live a very nice life on $999m. So anything over a billion feels to me like a mistake.” In Disney’s fantasy universe, the world’s billionaires – there are now 2,189, according to a report by Swiss investment bank UBS – would be declared “the winners of capitalism”, but would not be able to make any more money.
The UBS study shows that billionaires (the top 0.000028%) “did extremely well” during the coronavirus pandemic, growing their fortunes to a record high of $10.2tn (£7.8tn), more than three times the annual economic output of the UK. Elon Musk, the maverick co-founder of electric car company Tesla, who was the 35th richest in the world pre-Covid, is now the second-richest person ever to have lived, behind Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Both men have fortunes of more than $180bn each – roughly twice the GDP of Kenya.
Disney realised she had too much money when she was studying, first at Yale University and then for a PhD in English literature at New York’s Columbia University in the early 1980s. “Inheriting a fortune can fuck you up, it really can,” she says. “I spent my 20s and 30s trying to dig out from under the anxiety and guilt that came with it. People don’t like it when wealthy people talk about this, because wealth is meant to feel like the magic answer to every question, right? ‘If only I had XYZ money, everything would be all right’ – and that is true for poor people.
“But after a certain point it starts not being true.” She falters slightly, searching for the right words. “Money becomes its own preoccupation. I think of it as like a really fancy dog that you have to constantly be brushing. And so you get sucked into it. From the time I was 21 years old, I spent far too much time with accountants, lawyers and estate attorneys, talking about, and thinking about, my money: where it was, why it was there, did it need to change, and what the tax implications would be.”
Disney talks about how, growing up, she and her siblings (she has two brothers and a sister) never had to queue for anything. “You know, if you never have to stand in line, it makes you act differently,” she says. “And you begin to wonder about everything. Are people more interested in what you have to say because of what you have? Are they letting you think you’re funnier than you really are? Having no one who will tell you the truth about yourself… I mean, that really corrodes.”
1994’s The Lion King helped morph Disney’s family from very rich to uber-rich. Photograph: Allstar/Walt Disney Pictures
It was around this time that Disney’s family morphed from very rich to uber-rich. Michael Eisner had taken over as chief executive of the Disney company, which had been struggling for years after the deaths of Walt and Roy Oliver Disney in 1966 and 1971 respectively. Eisner turned its fortunes around by revitalising its animation division and buying up Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm. Soon Disney was producing critically acclaimed and money-spinning films: Beauty And The Beast (the first animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar) and The Lion King. Disney’s share price soared, throwing off huge dividends to Abigail’s father, Roy Edward Disney, a major shareholder. In 1994 alone, Eisner was paid a record-breaking $203m.
Suddenly, Abigail says, her family changed. Her dad bought a private plane: not a small jet, but a Boeing 737 with queen-size beds and an onboard shower. She rebelled by refusing to get on the plane, and by starting to give her money away.
Disney lives most of the time in New York with her husband, Pierre Hauser. They met at Yale and were married at Columbia University’s St Paul’s Chapel. Their joint charity, the Daphne Foundation, aims to end poverty in the city. A nameplate on Disney’s desk reads: “Feminist AF”. She also runs the documentary company Fork Films, producing films about issues she believes in, such as Pray The Devil Back To Hell, about a female-led peace movement in Liberia; and Crip Camp, about a summer camp for people with disabilities, recently nominated for an Oscar. “I’m sort of like a deliberately terrible businesswoman,” she says, explaining that her loss-making projects are a way of giving money to creative people who need it.
If you’re making more than £200,000 a year, you should be paying more tax. It is not going to make you poor, is it?
As she has grown more confident, Disney has begun speaking up against pay inequality at the Walt Disney Company, describing then-chief executive Bob Iger’s $65m paycheque in 2018 as “insane”. “If your CEO salary is 700, 600, 500 times your median workers’ pay, there is nobody on earth – Jesus Christ himself isn’t worth 500 times his median workers’ pay,” she said at the time. Iger, now Disney’s executive chairman, actually earned 1,424 times the median Disney worker’s pay that year – almost triple Abigail’s guesstimate. He defended it as “a one-time grant” for his role in overseeing Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox, and at a Vanity Fair event in 2019 acknowledged that the country needed to address inequality. “I think we have to figure out if there’s a tax plan that makes sense that transfers more wealth from a small set of individuals to a larger set of individuals,” he said.
The Walt Disney Company’s lowest-paid staff began seeking Disney out as their potential saviour. One worker, whose job was to dress up as Cinderella in the “magic happens” parades, wrote that she couldn’t afford to pay her rent and was sleeping in her car. “It kills me,” Disney says, “because as a child I went there with my grandfather. Now, I may have rose-tinted glasses when looking back, but there was an almost reverence for him, and he had such a rapport with the people who worked there. He would be horrified.” Disney says unskilled labourers, like many of the thousands working at Disneyland and Disney World, are effectively “endless, unnamed, interchangeable parts that can be replaced at any time”.
Her activism enraged her parents, who worshipped at the shrine of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal capitalism. Both her parents were alcoholics: Roy Edward died in 2009, and her mother, Patricia, in 2012. “My parents were quite conservative, and so we were in conflict a lot,” she says. “I have a brother and a sister who are very, very supportive and are right there with me.”
Though Disney doesn’t fly by private jet, she still leads a life of unquestioned luxury, with a taste for expensive wines at exclusive restaurants (when they’re open) and designer shoes. She says her biggest extravagance is her home in Ireland, a 15th-century castle that sleeps 26 people. Soon after we speak, Disney, Hauser and their dogs embark on a new adventure: driving across the US in a van, joining the craze that has exploded in popularity during the pandemic. “Haven’t left the city yet but we are already sacked out and happy. #vanlife,” she wrote on Instagram alongside a picture of her and Hauser glued to their phones in the back of the van.
The Patriotic Millionaires group has no membership card or secret handshake, but members need assets of at least $5m, or an annual income in excess of $1m, to join. Founder Erica Payne, a political strategist who worked on Bill Clinton’s inaugural committee, has said that, as well as being rich and progressive, the members have another thing in common: they all “hate the name”.
“Every time we have a gathering we have 30 minutes set aside so they can bitch about it,” she said last year. “And then, at the conclusion of the 30 minutes, I tell them we’re not going to change the name.” It was designed to attract attention, particularly from those on the right in the US: “You’re patriotic, and you’re a millionaire.”
Six British millionaires have so far signed up to the UK chapter, demanding that the government urgently address inequality here. They describe “shocking” Office for National Statistics data, showing that the richest 1% of Britons hold almost a quarter of the nation’s wealth, at a time when poverty is rising. London recently overtook New York as home to the highest concentration of dollar millionaires in the world: about 875,000 people, or one in 10, while 2.5 million Londoners are classified as living in poverty.
The British members set out their purpose in July last year, in an open letter under the banner Millionaires for Humanity, with other signatories including the screenwriter and director Richard Curtis: “No, we are not the ones caring for the sick in intensive care wards. We are not driving the ambulances that will bring the ill to hospitals. We are not restocking grocery store shelves or delivering food door to door. But we do have money, lots of it. Money that is desperately needed now, and will continue to be needed in the years ahead, as our world recovers from this crisis.”
Among them is Gemma McGough, 40, from Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire, who made millions from the sale of a startup exploiting wireless technology. When I speak to her over video in her home office, she is juggling running a new company with home-schooling three children.
McGough wants the government to tax her – and other high earners – at a rate as high as 75% to help the country’s pandemic-ravaged public finances. “The economy is so damaged from Covid, I am happy to pay my share,” she says. “If you’re making more than £150,000 or £200,000 a year, you should be paying more. If you’re earning £200,000, paying a higher rate of tax on earnings above that is not going to make you poor, is it?”
Gemma McGough started working at 16, and made millions from her startup. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian
Currently the highest tax rate in the UK is 45%, on earnings above £150,000. But many of the highest earners also use complex schemes to legally reduce the amount they pay. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, used the budget to raise billions of pounds by freezing tax thresholds and thus dragging 1.3 million middle-income earners into higher tax brackets, angering backbench MPs. Instead, the group argues, more should be taken from the super-rich. McGough and the other British Patriotic Millionaires would also like to see a big increase in inheritance tax and capital gains tax, plus a new wealth tax.
Three prominent economists recently recommended the introduction of a one-off tax on anyone with more than £500,000 in assets, including property. The Wealth Tax Commission suggests a 1% tax on those individuals for five years could raise £260bn – enough to fund the NHS for a year. Such taxes are beginning to be introduced in Argentina, Bolivia and Morocco to help pay for the recovery. In Norway, about 500,000 people pay an 0.85% charge on their assets above the value of about £125,000. The prospect of such a tax in the UK is rich people’s second-biggest fear after the virus, according to Knight Frank’s wealth report. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Sunak have both dismissed the suggestion.
McGough says she finds it hard to understand wealthy people fighting not to pay more tax. “It is an issue of morality: why are we comfortable with the wealthy continuing to get wealthier? If we allow it to go on, ultimately, there will be civil unrest,” she says.
McGough, whose mother was a cleaner and father a painter-decorator, grew up poor: her family did not have a car until she was 10, and there was no central heating. She shone at school, but her parents asked her to get a job to help with the rent rather than go to university. By chance, her first job, at 16, was in the soon-to-be booming world of radio frequency technologies. “It just really suited me,” she says. “I went on to start a business doing it.” Back then, her “motivator was to make money” because she desperately wanted to go travelling. Her first big trip was in an overland truck from Victoria Falls, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, to South Africa.
McGough was so busy building her company, which certified new RF technology products, that she didn’t get a chance to think about how much money she was making – until advisers kept offering to help her lower her tax bill with creative accounting. “It is quite a toxic environment, but you’re busy. It’s only afterwards that you realise it always seemed wrong. There should be pride in being a higher-rate taxpayer. Now my politics are very leftward leaning.”
She says rich people who are known to avoid tax should be seen as “social pariahs … a national disgrace, not heroes”. Some of the wealthiest Britons are no longer based in the UK, which allows them to make significant tax savings. Sir James Ratcliffe, the UK’s richest person and a high-profile Brexiter, last year quit Britain for tax-free Monaco. It has been estimated that the move will ultimately save him £4bn in tax payments. Other rich Britons who have moved to Monaco include the former Topshop boss Sir Philip Green and his wife, Tina; the property billionaires Simon and David Reuben; John Hargreaves, the founder and chairman of Matalan; and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton. In 2019, John Caudwell, the billionaire founder of Phones4u, vowed to join them in Monaco if Labour was elected and raised taxes.
Like Disney, McGough says her parents “struggle” with her views. “They were very excited that I became such a success, and very proud of that,” she says. “But after I sold the business and became much more socialist, they found it hard to understand the shift. When you are poorer, the pursuit of money is important and it was seen that I had won the game of life. “Yes, you have won, but there are still people living on the streets, people living in circumstances you can’t imagine, across the world,” she says. “You can’t consider yourself a winner, when losing has such terrible outcomes.” McGough says her parents are slowly coming round. “They are happy that I’m doing what I want, but they do find it odd.”
Gary Stevenson, 34, is another member of the UK branch of Patriotic Millionaires. He made his first million when he was 24, betting on the outcome of Greece’s financial crisis in 2011. He was a senior economist at Citibank, and placed a series of bets that would pay out if global inequality increased. The bets made him, he claims, the most profitable Citibank trader in the world that year, earning it $35m. He made the same bet on yawning inequality in 2012: again, it paid out.
Gary Stevenson made his first million at 24, as a trader at Citibank. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian
“It put me in a weird space,” he says, wearing a grey hoodie in his minimalist kitchen in Limehouse, close to the heart of the City of London. “I was making loads of money from the fact that the world economy is going to be fucked for ever. I rolled it around in my head for a year or two, before deciding I had to quit.”
Stevenson says the decision was hard, because making a lot of money had been all he wanted to do. “I was quite poor growing up – we lived in a small terrace house by the railway line in Ilford, and as a family we couldn’t afford for me to go on school trips and stuff. You get judged on how much money you have, so I went out and made it, a lot of it.”
After he quit banking, Stevenson went on to study economics at the University of Oxford, to learn more about what could be done to redress global inequality. He didn’t find the answer among the spires. “It’s just a bunch of posh people in caps, worried about continuing to be rich,” he says. “Change isn’t going to come from there.” Stevenson believes increasing tax on the wealthy is the only answer. “The problem is that rich people save most of their income, so it does not trickle back into the economy. Whereas ordinary people spend most of their income. Companies are only going to expand if they are spending.
I want to live in a world where everyone can help themselves, and can get those high-paying jobs, like I had
“Tax is the most important thing, it’s the only way that poorer people can have a chance of catching up,” he says. “I’m not talking about huge taxes on high earners like doctors or lawyers, I’m talking about going after the families who have been keeping their money for ever. These families have hundreds of millions of pounds, and money makes money so it’s just going up and up. I was paying 45% tax on my earnings, but the Duke of Westminster was paying next to nothing on his billions of inheritance.” The heirs of the sixth Duke of Westminster paid no inheritance tax on the bulk of his £8.3bn family fortune after his death in 2016. His son, Hugh Grosvenor, 30, inherited the title and became one of the world’s richest people, as the major shareholder of global property company Grosvenor Estates, which owns swathes of properties in the West End, Mayfair and Belgravia in London, as well as estates in Cheshire, Lancashire and Scotland.
Stevenson dismisses arguments that the Patriotic Millionaires could follow the example of people such as Bill Gates or MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Jeff Bezos, who gave away almost $6bn last year, donating through philanthropy rather than higher taxes. He admits he could help his friends from comprehensive school back in Ilford, who are working as teachers, fashion designers and actors. But, he says, “helping them individually isn’t enough. I want to live in a world where everyone can help themselves. Where people from poor backgrounds can get those high-paying jobs like I had.”
Stevenson won’t say how much money he has now, only that he has “enough to retire and not work again”. He hasn’t given much to charity, but says he is using his money to push for economic change. The only way to do this, he says, will be if the majority of people are told how badly the decks are stacked against them, “and they get really fucking angry about it. People don’t realise how rich the rich are, and that the rich don’t pay much tax,” he says. “People think I’m a billionaire, people think I’m like Jay-Z. But I’ve got nothing compared to the truly rich.”
For her part, Abigail Disney thinks low-paid workers are already very angry, and that change will only come if the rich turn on each other. “My grandfather would never have paid himself over 1,000 times what his median worker was being paid,” she says. “There were no laws against him doing it, it was just not an acceptable thing to do. He certainly wouldn’t have been put on the cover of magazines and told he was a genius.” Iger has graced the cover of Fortune and Time magazine. “This is who we are worshipping now,” Disney says. “The norms have shifted, and the country will follow the tone set by business – that’s always been the way in American life.”
Disney says more rich and powerful people are joining the movement in spirit, if not always formally signing up. “People want to take society back to a fairer time, before it’s too late,” she says. “But the question is, will they have the courage to go up against their own class? That’s the hardest thing in the world to do – for a liberal to criticise liberals, for a businessman to criticise businessmen. I know, from personal experience; I have made myself very unattractive to the wealthy. But we need them to start calling each other out.”