Even Mega Millionaire Abigail Disney Realizes the System Is Broken

An heir to the Disney fortune is not holding back from lambasting inequality in America.
April 22, 2019, 4:55pm
Abigail Disney
Abigail Disney. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Refinery29) Social split includes 
cjmacer/Getty stock image

Abigail Disney is on a tear. After calling Disney CEO Bob Iger’s 2018 pay “insane” on a panel hosted by Fast Company Thursday, the granddaughter of company co-founder Roy Disney and heiress to a vast fortune unleashed a tweet-storm Sunday about the structural obstacles facing workers at businesses like the one bearing her family's name.

According to her own calculations, Iger’s $65.6 million in total compensation was so vast that, in a moderately less dystopian alternative universe, he might have pocketed a mere $10 million and still had enough left over to award Disneyland employees an across-the-board 15 percent pay bump.

Disney also called out the absurd pay ratio between Iger and rank-and-file employees—he made 1,424 times what his median worker did, according to one analysis—and the company’s use of the 2017 Trump tax cuts to pad shareholders’ pockets with stock “buybacks.” She also dismissed the corporate defense that Disney was offering education benefits as disconnected from the reality of working life. (Disclosure: Disney is an investor in VICE Media, the company that owns

A massive redistribution of pay like the one Abigail Disney proposed would be a game-changer for company-specific reasons—Disneyland employees have historically dealt with homelessness, and Disney World employees have likewise struggled to secure affordable housing. Of course, she is not actually in a position to force such a change, but her raising the issue is a fresh example of the wealthiest in America grappling with just how “corrosive,” to use her word, inequality can be. Rich icons like Bill Gates have made the rounds in recent years to argue for higher taxes on the rich and also for wealthy people to give away their fortunes. They have also come under fire for appearing to propose that the charity of benevolent scions take the place of government in providing key services, and for bemoaning the alleged perils of too much progressive taxation.

Disney’s righteous display of anger at the system didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. As the Washington Post reported, she opposed the Trump tax cuts at the time of their passage in 2017. But more broadly, she’s staking out turf in an increasingly frenzied national dialogue about whether capitalism can be really be progressive or healthy or responsible. Certainly the country has seen periods, like the World War II era—often called the Great Compression because inequality actually went down—when much higher taxes, coupled with a stronger labor movement (and a government less hostile to unions), made for more widely shared prosperity. 2020 Democratic contenders like Elizabeth Warren—who just unveiled a proposal to cancel student debt and has been hyping a “wealth” or “millionaire’s” tax on people like Disney—are banking that anger at present circumstances (and perhaps nostalgia for more prosperous years) will make them stand out in a crowded field.

But the enduring popularity of self-styled democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, plus survey and other evidence suggesting millennials prefer socialism to capitalism—and the discussion of ideas like 70 percent marginal tax rates (which in truth were not that outlandish 50 years ago) by insurgents like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—suggest Disney is no radical truth-teller. She's being empathetic and passionate and praiseworthy, but not exactly cutting edge. Her commentary recognizes a system that is increasingly struggling to sustain itself—and a ruling class that, one way or another, is finally being forced to acknowledge the precarity that has defined life for so many for so long.

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