The American dream is now in Denmark

A conversation with Danish businessman Djaffar Shalchi about why he wants to make rich people like himself pay more in taxes

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Djaffar Shalchi is a very rich man. Like many in his class, he “gives back.” But in one important way he differs from many philanthropists. He believes that philanthropy is no substitute for taxation and a properly functioning, welfare-providing government.

I recently talked with the Danish construction entrepreneur and founder of Human Act about becoming a traitor to his class.

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“Wealth is like manure”: a conversation with Djaffar Shalchi

ANAND: You recently started an organization called Millionaires for Humanity. This raises the question: Do you think most millionaires and billionaires are currently for humanity?

DJAFFAR: If we millionaires are going to be “for humanity,” we have got to go beyond philanthropy and recognize that we need to be taxed. No matter how generous and smart we think we are in our private giving, unless we shift from trying to minimize our taxes to advocating to be taxed more, we are not living up to being “for humanity.” Are most millionaires there yet? No. I do feel a shift is starting, though. Please keep encouraging us — and keep pressuring us, too.

ANAND: You have an interesting personal background that led you to this place of advocating for structural change as a very rich person. Tell us about your journey.

DJAFFAR: I am one of those who gets highlighted by the media as a “self-made man.” I am told that I fit the storyline: I am an immigrant son of a single mother from Iran; while my mum cleaned in hotels, I studied hard, worked hard, and became a successful entrepreneur. I rose to be a multimillionaire — the American dream, except in Denmark!

It has always been evident to me, however, that I have not risen all by my own efforts: that I am not a “self-made man,” that the welfare state made me. Without the creche care and schooling and health care I received, I could not have flourished. And without Denmark’s strong public services, neither could my business.

ANAND: What was your epiphany, if any, in realizing that very rich people like yourself need to be reined in rather than asked to give back?

DJAFFAR: I knew it as a working-class immigrant child. Later, when I became rich and got involved in philanthropy across the world, I witnessed that while philanthropy can help ameliorate tough times for some people, it is only in collective action through government policy that we can we achieve a fair society and shared prosperity. All the data bear out what I witnessed. The way I put it to my fellow rich people is this: there is a title that is more noble and consequential than “Generous Philanthropist,” and that title is “Happy Taxpayer.”

ANAND: Since you’re speaking as a rich guy on these topics, give us a sense of how rich we’re talking about, without disclosing any of your account numbers or PINs.

DJAFFAR: I made many millions of dollars, and I made them relatively young. I have three places I call home. I never worry about money. DM for my PIN.

ANAND: What are the most significant structural changes that you think are necessary to attack wealth and income inequality worldwide and in certain countries in particular?

DJAFFAR: We need a wealth tax everywhere. We need quality free health and education for everyone, everywhere. We need a green new deal everywhere. There’s no country where this is impossible, and no country where this is not necessary.

ANAND: There has been a lot of recent discussion of a wealth tax in America, but even the most ambitious of the serious proposals, by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are quite far from being “erosive” wealth taxes. In other words, even at a top rate of 8 or 10 percent, most billionaires’ fortunes would grow rather than shrink each year under their plans. Do you think we need to go further and have an erosive wealth tax?

DJAFFAR: You make an excellent point that even if there is a wealth tax, rich people can make so much from the interest on their capital that we will still keep getting richer, just less fast. The most important thing now is to initiate the wealth tax because there’s so much nonsense talk about how it “cannot” be done. Of course it can. The only way to move on from that debate is to bring a wealth tax in now. Someone has to pay for the recovery from Covid-19, in which everyone except the rich has lost. Are we multimillionaires going to say it’s not us? Are we going to be such shmucks, such losers, and say no?

ANAND: You live in Denmark. Many Americans, especially people who aspire to business success like you’ve had, believe that if we were to adopt policies like Denmark’s, capitalism would die, and gulags would sprout across the land. Are they correct?

DJAFFAR: They could not be more wrong. In real life, contrary to the Hollywood tale, kids are more likely to achieve the American dream in Denmark than in America. America is not a beacon to the world on how to run an economy. Scandinavia has a much more impressive economic record than the US and is much more innovative. Sorry, my American friends — we’re not just fairer than you. We’re doing better by being so.

ANAND: In America, wealthy individuals and businesses lobby for a threadbare safety net to pay less in taxes. But this creates a complication. It puts the onus on companies to figure out healthcare for their employees, to make these awful life-or-death decisions about pensions and maternity leave and the like. And what I often hear from friends who are in business in Europe is how much easier it is to do business when you’re not making all these societal decisions about your employees’ well-being and health and life and children as part of your operation.

DJAFFAR: Absolutely. And that’s just part of it. Social stability, low crime, a well-educated population, and great infrastructure are good for business. As we put it, the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do. We could also put it this way: the mean way to run an economy is also the dumb way to run an economy.

ANAND: Should billionaires exist?

DJAFFAR: In a well-regulated, well-managed, and thriving economy without monopolies, they wouldn’t. Wealth is like manure: spread it, and it makes everything grow; pile it up, and it stinks.

ANAND: You advocate going “beyond philanthropy” and doing real structural change. I wonder what you think of the argument that philanthropy isn’t merely inadequate. That it can be actively part of the problem, by buying off a certain amount of anger, laundering reputations, and intensifying the plutocrats’ stranglehold over public conversation and power?

DJAFFAR: You make a vital point. Right now, philanthropy is treated as an alternative to structural change. I focus on structural change, and I am working to persuade other multimillionaires to join me, advocating for a wealth tax on people like us. I still do philanthropy, but I know that it is no solution. You know, the thrill of seeing your nameplate on one school or a hundred schools is pretty empty in the end, compared to the thrill that we will all feel when every child in the world goes to a good school. Philanthropy is just so unambitious.

ANAND: One of the features of the neoliberal age is that politicians, even left-leaning ones, are reluctant to use the language of “I welcome their hatred” that President Franklin Roosevelt used long ago. Do you think we need a little more class warfare, as it’s sometimes derisively called, rather than less of it?

DJAFFAR: Warren Buffet was right when he said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” We set up Millionaires for Humanity as an international network to help more millionaires move across from the dark side.

ANAND: Explain Elon Musk to me in one sentence.

DJAFFAR: There’s not much “there” there, is there?

Djaffar Shalchi is an entrepreneur from Denmark and founder of Millionaires for Humanity, a network of wealthy people who advocate for raising taxes on wealthy people. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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