On the alleged persecution of billionaires

I recently wrote an information-crammed article/dataviz for High Country News about the slow death of coal in Wyoming. One of the many points made is that hefty revenues from coal (and oil and gas) have allowed the state to forego an income tax, while continuing to fund vital government services. I finished the piece with a list of measures the state might take to survive, now that coal's going away, including: "Officials may need to institute an income tax that will require the billionaires of Jackson to pay their fair share."

This is how one reader responded:

Interesting article... I've been forwarded it now 14 times from other residents of the Jackson Hole area as an example of yet another vilification of people who were hard working, smart, talented, driven, or just lucky... Your missive about "getting the billionaires to pay their fair share" has clearly struck a nerve.

Most of the billionaires in the area live in Wyoming only a few months a year; they didn't cause Wyoming's coal problem; they are an extreeeemely mobile group of people easily able to move elsewhere, who are likely responsible for a massive amount of local business generated in town.

Is your ethos as a writer going to revolve around this kind of attack on the successful, when so much of Wyoming's culture celebrated risk-takers who made their own version of the American Dream happen? Your name is being attached with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders now on their feeds. Is this what you intended?


Readers often send me notes or letters or tweets. Sometimes they are positive, sometimes constructively critical, sometimes downright mean and nasty. The tone of this particular letter was the first thing that struck me: It's not nasty at all, and I truly appreciate that. The next thing that struck me is that this letter is emblematic of so much that is wrong with America today.

The letter writer -- a prominent Silicon Valley investor, according to the internet -- is apparently offended by my "vilification" of and "attack" on billionaires who have homes in Jackson, just as he's also pained by calls by certain senators and presidential candidates to implement a more progressive federal income tax.

An attack? I must have missed the part of my story where I called on readers to eat the rich, on the proletariat to get the guillotines out of storage, and on the housecleaning and gardening staffs working in Jackson's palatial homes to rise up and loot the wine cellars. I must have tuned out when Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for a violent revolution and imprisonment of everyone with a net worth of $10 million or more.

Oh, wait, that's right. I didn't say any of that. Nor did Sanders, Warren, or even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Nope, no guillotines here. Heck, I didn't even demand that Wyoming officials implement an income tax, or that they make that tax a progressive one, or that they impose a real estate transfer tax on the sale of multi-million dollar homes (which they should). I merely suggested that sometime in Wyoming's coal-deficient future, the state may need an income tax, which could result in Jackson's billionaires paying their fair share in order to keep the state operating, the schools maintained, the teachers paid, and so on.

Meanwhile, Warren, Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and many others are asking for the same thing: For the wealthy to pay their fair share so that the United States doesn't collapse under the weight of its own wealth inequality and social immobility.

These suggestions are neither attacks nor a form of vilification. They are not radical. All but seven U.S. states have an income tax. The call for a high marginal tax rate on upper incomes, meanwhile, comes straight out of the Commie days of the 1950s, when the Don Drapers and Roger Sterlings of the world were taxed 92% tax on any income over $1.7 million (2013 dollars). Today's top marginal tax rate is just 37%.

But, according to this letter writer, bringing Wyoming's taxes into line with most other states and making America's tax code great again would amount to persecution of those who are "hard-working, smart, talented, driven, or just lucky." I'm glad he added the part about luck, but it's too bad he left out that other big determinant of economic status: "born into wealth."

If Wyoming dares to levy an income tax and therefore tyrannize these poor billionaires who "live in Wyoming only a few months a year" (as if that's supposed to be a good thing), then they're going to up and take their gobs of money elsewhere, goshdarnit!

And where will they go with their $33 million, 12,000-square-foot, second, third, or fourth homes? Probably to one of the other six states in the U.S. that don't have a state income tax. I hear South Dakota is lovely this time of year, and that the skiing in Florida puts Jackson Hole to shame.


Pick up your copy of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster (Torrey House Press, 2018) today, and get the full story of the Gold King Mine and a whole lot more.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.