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Disney Heiress Speaks Out About Income Inequality In 'New Yorker' Interview

NOEL KING, HOST:

What does an inheritance and a last name enable you to do? Abigail Disney has thought a lot about that. You probably recognize her last name. She's the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, who co-founded the Disney company with his younger brother, Walt. And Abigail says her net worth is around $140 million. But in a new profile in The New Yorker magazine out today, she describes herself as an uncomfortable heiress. She's lent her name to a group of millionaires who are speaking out against rising income inequality. Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote that profile for The New Yorker. And she started by telling us about a story from Abigail Disney's childhood.

SHEELAH KOLHATKAR: Abigail had very fond memories of her grandfather, Roy Disney, who co-founded the company. And she said that he used to take her to the theme park when she was a child. This was a cherished memory - but that they could just march to the front of any line of any ride or attraction they wanted to go on. And, of course, all of the other families attending the park were standing there baking in the sun...

KING: Yeah.

KOLHATKAR: ...Waiting their turn. And she said she felt really bad and awkward. And when she pointed this out to her grandfather, he said, well, I worked so hard all these years building this company specifically so I could do this, so I could take you to the front of the line.

KING: What was the moment that she decided she was going to go from being just a shareholder who wasn't really active in the company, who wasn't particularly politically active, to being someone who is going to start saying things like, Disney needs to pay its employees more? What was her turning point?

KOLHATKAR: She was always much more politically liberal than the rest of her family. But there was a moment in 2018 when a worker at one of the Disney properties in California reached out to her through a Facebook message and told her that, you know, the union representing workers at the theme park had been fighting with management over a new contract. They had been trying to negotiate a $15 minimum wage. And he said, well, we're not getting any traction with the company. Can you help us?

She then flew out to Anaheim and met with a group of Disney workers. And some of these workers told her really upsetting stories about people who said that they were sleeping in their cars or they had become homeless. She eventually ended up making some public statements about how she felt that it was wrong for a company that was making billions of dollars in profit and whose brand was centered around the idea of happiness and joy and family togetherness was paying so little to its workers that they were not really able to live stable, middle-class lives.

KING: How did the Disney company feel about her coming out and being critical of the company in that way?

KOLHATKAR: The company was not happy at all about this. Disney management pointed out that they feel that they do take care of their workers. They provide a lot of educational opportunities and opportunities for advancement to their workers. Although, Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, had been paid around $66 million that year, which seems like an astronomical sum.

So they were quite outraged. And, of course, they have their point about how many of these workers are biased or that the union has its point of view it's trying to push. I think that Abigail feels really bad about this, but she also sees her role as creating a sort of public pressure on them to reconsider some of their policies.

KING: Abigail Disney belongs to a group called the Patriotic Millionaires. This is an interesting bunch. Who are they and what do they want?

KOLHATKAR: The Patriotic Millionaires is a group of wealthy Americans who are concerned about wealth and income inequality and who are so concerned about it that they have decided to band together and lobby for the kinds of economic policies that you do not normally see members of that economic group lobbying for, such as raising estate taxes, raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, raising minimum wages.

KING: And we should note that the name Patriotic Millionaires is not symbolic. It is not a metaphor. These people are millionaires.

KOLHATKAR: You have to be earning at least a million dollars in income or have a net worth of $5 million to be eligible to join. The group has around 200-ish members.

KING: There are many more millionaires than that in the United States. (Laughter) I guess that tells you something about the popularity - or lack thereof - of this group.

KOLHATKAR: Well, I think the title of the group is a little controversial. And certainly some...

KING: How so?

KOLHATKAR: (Laughter) Well, there are people who find the name a little sensational, a little garish, a little tacky, perhaps. Now, the founder of the group acknowledges that the name is a little flashy and it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But she feels that that's exactly what gives the group its power. Rich people calling themselves patriotic millionaires just catches people's attention. And they end up generating a lot of sort of free press coverage, which is how they get their message out.

KING: There is a final really interesting theme running through your story, which is about, what happens if the system as we now live it - this system where we have this great inequality - breaks down? Some of the Patriotic Millionaires - at least one - told you that they're worried about a revolution, like, you know, the working class rises up in the streets and we see protests like we saw in Chile - or even worse. Based on the research you've done, are we looking - in the United States of America, do we need to worry about a class war?

KOLHATKAR: The historians and experts I spoke to about this all pretty much agreed we're unlikely to see a mass social uprising. They all acknowledged that inequality is at a historic sort of alarming level. But they said that the government is simply too powerful. It's too easy, through technology and other means, to control citizens. The population is simply too varied and spread out.

They did say, however, that we could continue moving in a direction that we, perhaps, as Americans do not want to move in where you end up with a small group of very wealthy people living in gated estates having to invest in personal security. Crime could go up - kidnappings, I mean, we do see that in other countries.

And one historian in particular told me, you know, what could happen is rich people could be limited in their ability to enjoy their wealth. They would barely be able to leave their homes without, you know, an armed guard at their side. And many of the Patriotic Millionaires said this to me as well. They said this is self-interest. I do not want to live in a country like that.

KING: Do you think, in the end, that Abigail Disney would say that she is self-interested?

KOLHATKAR: I think she would. She derives a lot of personal pleasure and satisfaction from this political work that she does. And she's the first to acknowledge that it makes her incredibly happy and it gives her life meaning. And if, at the same time, she can help push the country in a better direction, you know, she would argue, why not?

KING: Why not? Sheelah Kolhatkar, writer for The New Yorker, thank you so much for joining us.

KOLHATKAR: It was great to be here. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAID'S "CROWN SHY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.