By Janáe Bradford
New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was hoping red, white and green could be colors for change at the Met Gala in September. She wore a custom white gown designed by Aurora James of Brother Vellies. The fashion statement was on its back: “Tax the Rich,” in bold, red letters. Green—lots of it—was the color of the hall.
Tickets to the Gala can be $30,000 and up, although hers apparently was complimentary. The event raises double-digit millions every year for the Museum of Modern Art, a privately-owned public treasure. The proceeds in part help to maintain low admission fees for everyday visitors, “as little $ as you’d like to” to pay, is how Ocasio-Cortez described them.
The optics of her appearance were contradictory—a stick-it-to-the-rich message at a flaunt-it-if-you-got-it event. But for the progressive Democrat known as AOC, and for certain other local civil servants, it was one of those get-in-free, constituent-service, got-to-be-there affairs.
What was less certain was which of “the rich” Ocasio-Cortez had in mind? How rich does one need to be to be taxed much more? And how rich, as well, to be able to change things—like national tax policies?
President Biden’s $3.5 trillion social safety net package, until most recently the talk of the town in Washington, set the bar at $400,000 in annual income. Ocasio-Cortez would go higher–$10 million a year, what she’s called the “tippy-tops” level, to pay for a climate-change proposal.
“It’s not all of your income” that’s being taxed, she told a television interviewer a couple years ago. “It’s on your 10 millionth and one dollar. So after you make 10 million dollars in one year, your dollars after that start to get progressively taxed at a much higher rate.”
Neither Ocasio-Cortez nor Biden seems to be aiming at poorer people, such as anyone living comfortably on a couple hundred grand a year. They’re talking about folks whose net worth is measured in nine or more digits, not six and under.
Take Jay-Z, for example. He’s worth half a billion dollars. His financial investment helped change the name of a professional basketball franchise—from the New Jersey Nets to the Brooklyn Nets—and even the arena, city and stateof the team’s home court.
Kanye West is worth twice as much as Jay-Z, officially a full billion. And then some. In 2016, he helped change the name of the President of the United States from Barack Obama to Donald J. Trump, but failed four years later in his short-lived bid to change it from Donald J. Trump to Kanye West.
Financial guru Warren Buffet, whose net worth has been pegged at $80 billion to $100 billion, has for years advocated changing the tax code, with little success. “The wealthy are definitely undertaxed relative to the general population,” he told CNBC. “I think the income tax credit is the best way to address that,” Buffet said. “That probably means more taxes for guys like me, and I’m fine with that,” he said.
Bill Gates, a $130 billion dollar-man, is given credit, along with his former wife Melinda, of changing the world of technology and philanthropy, Forbes magazine personal finance columnist Heather L. Locus wrote.
But buyer beware: Don’t overestimate the power of the purse, personal advice columnist Heather Beatty warned.
“Having billions at your disposal to change the world doesn’t hurt, but believing wealth is imperative to alleviate suffering and inspire change is a pervasive myth,” she wrote for the Medium site. “While Bill and Melinda Gates are great examples of impacting the world, you certainly do not need to be them or have their fortune to do the same.”
Ocasio-Cortez seemed to be of a similar mind as she took heat for her appearance at the Gala. She may not have changed minds on the issue of taxing the rich, she acknowledged. “But we all had a conversation about Taxing the Rich in front of the very people who lobby against it, ” she said.
Perhaps one lesson to be learned from the whole affair is that change can come in different colors. Or maybe another: when it comes to colors of change and the color of money, talk’s not always cheap, but in the end, it’s still just talk.