This is noblesse oblige, circa 2010. To whom private planes have been granted, much is expected. You don't often hear the rich being so open about how they don't need their money.

Share story

You gotta hand it to the uber-rich around here. They give as good as they get.

Like Bill Gates Sr. He was quoted this week as telling Arthur Laffer, the Reaganite economist, that there’s really no limit to how much the rich like him should pay to benefit the rest of society.

“I am a fan of progressive taxation,” Gates Sr. said. “I would say our country has prospered from using such a system — even at 70 percent rates to say nothing of 90 percent.”

Then there was venture capitalist and early investor Nick Hanauer. He says Gates Sr.’s proposed income tax on high earners, Initiative 1098, would cost him millions of dollars every year. But the government spending that money on services to the public would be far better than if he spent it himself.

“If you look at the money that somebody like me — or Jeff Bezos or Steve Ballmer — where our cash flow goes, it’s crazy to assert that the highest and best use is in our bank accounts, or in the hedge funds that we’ve parked it in, or as jet fuel in our private planes,” Hanauer told The Associated Press. “It’s just nuts.”

This is noblesse oblige, circa 2010. To whom private planes have been granted, much is expected. You don’t often hear the rich being so open about how they don’t need their money.

Yet something bugs me about it. It’s no tax on me. It’s for a good cause. So why do I feel there’s something skewed about it?

I couldn’t put my finger on it until I heard Howard Behar, the retired president of Starbucks and an Obama-voting Democrat. He’s against Initiative 1098, but not, he says, because he’s anti-tax. He’s against it because it’s anti-democratic.

“It’s not the money,” he told KUOW-FM radio. “You want me to pay? I’ll pay. As long as everyone else pays somewhat of their share.”

An income tax, like any other tax, ought to apply to everyone, he said. Even if the poorest wage earner “only pays a buck.”

Soaking only the richest of the rich is unprecedented in state history, Behar says. We are letting 99 percent of the people decide whether a big tax should be paid only by the other 1 percent.

This does make me squirm. Even though, like Gates Sr., I think the uber-rich should pay more. But shouldn’t the rest of us also pay … something?

When they do fundraisers at our family’s elementary school, the goal is always 100 percent participation. Even if some can only give five bucks. The idea is that if everyone plays, nobody is alienated on the sidelines.

I get that I-1098 leaves in place almost all the other taxes that we all pay (and which some argue are highly regressive.) But this new tax rakes in two-plus billion dollars per year from only 26,000 families and 12,000 individuals. The other 4 million or so taxpayers in the state have no skin in this new game at all.

If we have a tax that we 99 percenters don’t pay, who is to stop us from raising it ever higher while we demand more spending, all at no cost to us?

You could argue: Who cares; they’re rich. But in 2007, Hanauer co-authored a book called “The True Patriot” that, in part, frets about this very point. “All Americans, regardless of differences in wealth, status, or talent, are equally obligated to serve our nation,” he wrote. “The moral value of shared sacrifice is what animates the very idea of citizenship.”

He and Gates Sr. deserve credit for proposing their own sacrifice with I-1098. But where’s the shared part? To those who don’t have to pay, sticking it to the gated community feels like another too-easy solution.

The other reason I’m against this state income tax is that the feds are going to have to raise federal income taxes, and soon. It was a reckless disgrace, back in the 2000s, that federal taxes were slashed by trillions while we put two wars on a Chinese credit card. We should start tackling those old debts before we hit up the same people — the bottomless rich — for new revenue.

If you care — and even if you don’t, you have read this far — this means I now find myself opposed to every statewide initiative on this year’s ballot. There are six, and I’m voting, in order, no, no, no, no, no and no.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or