WASHINGTON ― Rich people are fond of liquor and films, too, according to rich people.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sparked a firestorm of criticism over the weekend when he defended slashing taxes on multimillion-dollar estates as a reward for those Americans who invest rather than “spending every darn penny they have on booze or women or movies.”
The usual critics slammed Grassley’s remarks, which appeared in a Des Moines Register story on Sunday, as a cynical caricature of poor and middle-class Americans. The senator’s comments were also met with bewilderment by some of the very people he seems to hold in high regard ― wealthy investors, rich people’s heirs and big-company CEOs.
“I could introduce you to a lot of wealthy heirs who spend on a lot of women and booze, and who basically haven’t worked in their lifetimes, who would benefit from repealing the estate tax,” Chuck Collins told HuffPost on Tuesday.
Collins, who belongs to a group called Patriotic Millionaires that advocates for higher taxes on the wealthy, knows a thing or two about the good life. He’s the great-grandson of Oscar Mayer, the founder of the Oscar Mayer meat and cold cuts company. Before giving away his half-a-million-dollar trust fund at the age of 26 on the grounds of “economic fairness,” Collins was raised in a wealthy family in Detroit and even attended school with Mitt Romney.
Asked whether he’d ever spent money on things like alcohol or movies, Collins said he had, adding that he enjoyed celebrating “the finer way of life.”
Grassley, who serves on the Senate Finance Committee, made his controversial remarks when asked about the Senate tax bill, which would double the estate tax exemption ― to $11 million for an individual’s estate and $22 million for a couple’s estate.
Under current law, the tax must be paid on individuals’ estates worth more than $5.5 million and couples’ estates worth more than $11 million. Even at those levels, only 0.2 percent of Americans pay estate tax. Just 61 people in Iowa — 0.004 percent of all the state’s taxpayers — owed estate taxes in 2015, according to the Register.
In interviews with HuffPost this week, other members of Patriotic Millionaires ― a coalition of rich people who rose to prominence in 2010 by urging Congress to let the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy expire ― similarly criticized Grassley’s comments, arguing that such imagery is detrimental to policy making.
“Republicans always think that people who don’t work, that are rich enough to live on investments, like me, are somehow better than people who work for a living,” said Morris Pearl, chairman of the advocacy group and former managing director at BlackRock, which is one of the largest investment firms in the world. “I almost feel like they somehow believe that rich people who don’t need to work are somehow morally superior. And that’s just not true.”
Asked whether he’d ever dabbled in the kind of life Grassley described, Morris noted that he’s married with two children. But he added, “I do buy a little bit of wine,” and he has “seen a few movies this year.”
CampusWorks chairman Eric Schoenberg, another member of Patriotic Millionaires, laughed off Grassley’s suggestion that wealthy people are inherently more judicious about their money.
“Yes, I do consume alcohol,” he told HuffPost on Monday.
Schoenberg made his fortune working as an investment banker and inheriting from his father. He said wealthy people ought to be paying more in taxes ― including the estate tax Republicans seek to slash.
“I come from a wealthy family. I never paid taxes on that money. To me, it seems eminently reasonable when I receive it, I should pay tax on it,” he said.