Oscar Meyer heir, who gave away a fortune, aims to end the class war

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By Kevin O'Connor

Special to the Reformer

BRATTLEBORO - Chuck Collins understands why the 99 percent of Americans suffering from income inequality want to upend the status quo. But the great-grandson of meatpacker turned mogul Oscar Mayer knows those at the top don't see or feel much incentive to follow suit.

That's why the New Englander is traveling the nation telling people flush with dollars why they need to work for change.

"There is a top-down class war against the non-rich," he says. "But there is also a bottom-up class antagonism expressed in rhetorical attacks against the rich. Can we suspend the economic class hostilities long enough to consider what would move humanity forward?"

Collins aims to answer that question in his new book "Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good," recently released by White River Junction's Chelsea Green Publishing.

"The book I've written has two audiences - people with wealth and everyone else," the author said this week in Brattleboro during a Vermont tour featuring stops in Burlington and Shelburne.

Collins' 288-page paperback calls for a ceasefire in the nation's class war, starting with curbing attacks on "the haves" by "the have nots."

"I understand why people are angry, but what I have learned is when someone feels hated, they don't want to be part of a movement," he told a Brattleboro audience at Everyone's Books. "We need to invite the wealthy home."

Collins speaks of the second group firsthand: "My great-grandfather came from Germany with an amazing recipe for sausage," he said of the man whose small butcher shop is now a billion-dollar company. "Bringing home the bacon means something different in my family."

Growing up in a leafy Detroit suburb with such schoolmates as Mitt Romney, Collins gave away his half-million-dollar trust fund at age 26 (it would be worth $7 million today) and now works at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank where he directs its Program on Inequality and the Common Good and co-edits the website inequality.org.

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Collins, whose cabin in Guilford gives him reason to visit Vermont, said the nation's deep divisions over the recent presidential election make his message more pertinent than ever.

"Younger people are feeling the brunt of this polarization, with deteriorating livelihoods, crushing debt, and stagnant wages," he writes in his book. "All these forces undermine excellence and opportunity - and the quality of life for everyone."

The challenge, Collins, is to convince those with money to care.

"We need to stand in solidarity against the rapacious rich," he writes. "But to succeed, we need allies among the reachable wealthy. We must nd ways to engage and invite the 1 percent home, back to the table, to be partners in transforming the future."

"Coming home means sharing our wealth and paying our fair share of taxes," the author continues. "I urge us to move investment capital out of the old fossil fuel economy, o shore accounts, and speculative nancial investments - and redirect it to the new relocalized economy, including regional food and energy systems and enterprises that broaden wealth ownership, such as cooperatives."

Collins' book aims to explain the wealthy to the working class ("Privilege has a narcotic e ect, boosting our comfort and sense of importance, but ultimately disconnecting us from our neighbors and our own better nature") as well as to tell the rich why they need to help the poor ("Charity is not a substitute for public investment and taxation").

It also views the problem of climate change as a place of common ground.

"All of humanity - billionaire hedge fund managers, suburban soccer moms, and Bangladeshi farmers - is now wound together, our fate linked to our ability to respond to a planetary challenge bigger than anything we've faced before."

Collins, whose Northeast tour will take him to Washington, D.C. later this month, believes his unique position affords him the chance to help bridge the nation's economic divide.

"I've had this front row seat to the stagnation of wages, but I've also had this front row seat to people with tremendous wealth that is multiplying," he concluded in Brattleboro. "The Trump election - and the threats from it - are engaging a lot of people. The pressure will continue to build for a realignment. I'm an optimist person in a very bleak moment."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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