5 tycoons who want to close the wealth gap

By Hannah Dreier

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Feb. 23 2014 1:36 p.m. MST

UNZ: THE REPUBLICAN WHO FAVORS A RAISE

Not all members of the super-rich taking up the issue of inequality are progressives. Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire and registered Republican who once ran for California governor, is advocating the highest minimum wage in the country for his home state. Unz rose to fame when he spearheaded a 1998 ballot proposal that dismantled California's bilingual education system. He later became publisher of The American Conservative, a libertarian-leaning magazine.

Lately, he has become obsessed with the idea that a wage hike is the best way to advance the conservative ideal of reducing dependence on government programs. Frustrated with the gridlock in Congress, Unz is pouring his own money into a November ballot measure that would increase the minimum wage in California to $12 an hour in 2016.

At that level, he said in an interview with The Associated Press, "every full-time worker would be earning almost exactly $25,000 and every full-time worker couple $50,000. Under normal family circumstances, those income levels are sufficiently above the poverty threshold that households would lose their eligibility for a substantial fraction of the various social welfare payments they currently receive, including earned-income tax credit checks, food stamps and housing subsidies."

Unz, whose fortune comes from founding Wall Street Analytics Inc., argues that by not paying a living wage, companies are forcing the government to subsidize them through massive welfare spending. An advocate for the free market, Unz opposes any kind of subsidy. The wage proposal has led him to work with strange bedfellows, including Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and former independent presidential candidate, and progressive economist James Galbraith.

Unz, 52, trained as a theoretical physicist, has an IQ of 214 and has written scholarly papers on the Spartan naval empire. His political rivals and allies alike have made much of his nerdy demeanor. But his unorthodox background seems to have given him the confidence to go against the conventional wisdom of his party.

"The thing that's really shocking is that the Republican response to the problem is to call for increased welfare spending. From a free-market perspective, businesses should compete without subsidies," Unz said. "If they can't compete, then maybe they should go out of business."

HANAUER: HELPING PEOPLE BUY WHAT AMAZON SELLS

Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer believes the growing wealth gap threatens the economic system that has given him his wealth. One of the early investors in Amazon, Hanauer started the Internet company aQuantive Inc., which was acquired by Microsoft Corp. in 2007 for $6.4 billion.

But Hanauer said he doesn't consider himself a "job creator." If no one can afford to buy what he's selling, the jobs his companies create will evaporate, he reasons. In his view, what the nation needs is more money in the hands of regular consumers.

"A higher minimum wage is a very simple and elegant solution to the death spiral of falling demand that is the signature feature of our economy," he said in an interview with the AP last summer.

Hanauer, 54, advocates raising taxes for the rich and hiking the minimum wage to the unheard-of heights of $15 an hour. He has co-authored a book and launched an organization called The True Patriot Network to help push such proposals. In 2012, he advanced his ideas in a TED talk — one of the wonky, provocative lectures that have become a required feather in the cap of web-savvy thought leaders. But TED organizers refused to post Hanauer's lecture on the web, because they said it was too partisan.

SILBERSTEIN: THE QUIET ADVOCATE

Steve Silberstein made his fortune in the early days of computers by co-founding Innovative Interfaces, a software company that creates technology for hundreds of college and university libraries. He sold the company, settled in a secluded town in Marin County, Calif., and became a philanthropist.

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