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Billionaires get rich by 'relying on a system that exploits people,' says activist DeRay Mckesson

Progressive Democratic leaders Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sparked controversy in recent months by suggesting that billionaires shouldn’t exist. In a newly released interview, activist and podcast host DeRay Mckesson questioned how billionaires got that rich in the first place.

“I don't know how you become a billionaire without relying on a system that exploits people,” says Mckesson, who came to national prominence in 2014 as a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement.

“What structures and systems exist to even allow a billionaire to come to be?” he adds. “I don't know an answer that is not rooted in some sort of exploitation in some way.”

In recent weeks, billionaires like JPMorgan Chase (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon and hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman have rebuffed progressive critics for a perceived effort to villainize them.

“I think you should vilify Nazis, but you shouldn't vilify people who worked hard to accomplish things,” Dimon, whose net worth is $1.6 billion, told 60 Minutes” in November.

Last month, Democratic Massachusetts Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren released a campaign ad that highlights the billionaires who’ve criticized her proposed wealth tax, which would place a 2% tax on the wealth of households that exceed $50 million.

In leveling his criticism of an economic system that produces billionaires, Mckesson pointed to former WeWork CEO Adam Neumann, who received a buyout worth $1.7 billion when he left the company in October. Roughly a month later, WeWork laid off 2,400 employees.

“How do you get a golden parachute in the billions, and then you lay off ... people?” Mckesson says. “That sort of seems like an imbalance to me.”

Mckesson made the comments during a conversation that aired in an episode of Yahoo Finance’s “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Age 34, Mckesson leapt onto the national stage five years ago when he joined protests against the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, becoming a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement. The host of a podcast called “Pod Save the People,” Mckesson published a memoir last year called “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.”

In 2016, Time Magazine named him one of the 30 most influential people on the internet.

Activist and podcast host DeRay Mckesson appears on Influencers with Andy Serwer.
Activist and podcast host DeRay Mckesson appears on Influencers with Andy Serwer.

Mckesson credited Warren and California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris for helping stoke discussion about how wealth results from structural economic and political forces, rather than individual actions.

“It does benefit the national conversation that Warren, Kamala — a host of people — have participated,” he says. “We have finally started to talk about wealth inequality as not the result of personal choices but the result of a system that made choices for people.”

Laws that permit wealthy people and large corporations to skirt taxes have helped billionaires preserve their wealth, Mckesson said.

“The only way you become a billionaire in this moment is to do something where you aren't paying taxes in any way,” he says.

Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.

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