Interview with Nick Hanauer

Q & A with the man behind the manifesto that rattled the richest of the rich. Interview by Florangela Davila

The uber-wealthy Seattle entrepreneur and higher minimum wage activist cemented his reputation as a darling of the working class when he lambasted the rich in his 2014 POLITICO magazine manifesto, “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats.” In it, Hanauer surmised that today’s glaring economic inequality—if other “obscenely wealthy people” like him don’t step up and act responsibly—can only end up one way: in a revolution by the masses and in the destruction of the middle class.

The 54-year-old venture capitalist (one of Amazon’s first investors), two-time author, League of Education Voters co-founder and civic leader (he sits on the Council of Advisors of Forterra), was interviewed at his Second Avenue offices, on the 28th floor of a downtown Seattle high-rise. The artwork hanging above his desk: the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, an astronomical image showing part of the Ursa Major constellation. “It’s just a reminder of how small we are,” he said.

Nick Hanauer dressed in the sort of work outfit he prefers wearing from May through October. Photo by Danny Ngan
Nick Hanauer dressed in the sort of work outfit he prefers wearing from May through October. Photo by Danny Ngan

If the revolution comes, what will you spend your last $50 on?

I don’t know, chocolate.

What’s your ideal of a just, right country?

I don’t hold out hope for a utopia but I definitely think that it is possible to build a capitalist democracy that maximizes the participation of citizens in the economy and in the democracy in a way that leads to just about as high functioning and just a society as human beings can manage.

What’s the one thing us regular folk can do to help achieve a more equitable society?

To reject the trickle down story in all of its forms, the idea that the people at the top matter and are indispensable and that the people at the middle and the bottom are not. Economists and policy makers would like to think that all this stuff fits together as this sort of objective science. It’s simply not true. Economics is largely a tool that people use to enforce and encode social preferences about status and power and when somebody like me calls himself a job creator, it sounds like we’re describing the economy. But what we’re really doing is making a claim on status, privilege and power. And that claim is largely illegitimate.

What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without?

My family.

How do you know what life is actually like for the 99 percent? That’s a challenge. My wife (Leslie) and I grew up middle class and we went to public schools. Our lives changed relatively late in life (when he was in his 30s). I grew up working in the family business (Pacific Coast Feather Co.), which was small, with factory workers who were doing factory work . I have a pretty good visceral understanding of what that life is like although I think that life has become harder over the last 30 years since the split between workers and business owners has changed and advantaged owners.

Have you ever held a minimum wage job?

I worked in the factories for my family all through junior high school, high school and college. I suspect I made minimum wage. And I did some landscape work as a kid. I have no memory of what I was paid, but I tell you what (he starts laughing) it wasn’t very much!

Do your (two) kids do chores?

Not enough.

How are you going to get them to look at the world and have the same values that you have?

Yeah, well, we think about that a lot. Short of pretending to be poor, it’s very difficult to give them the same experience that we had growing up. We work hard and we talk to our children a lot about how fortunate they are. And we are doing our best to try and inculcate the values we think are super important about hard work, service and humility, but it’s hard. It remains to be seen if those lessons will stick.

What’s your favorite mode of transportation?

Private airplane.

What’s your favorite urban destination?

The density and the dynamism of cities are the richest and most interesting and highly textured constructions of human society. And so being in the center of a big well-run city, like, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver or Paris is incredibly exciting and I love to be in those places.

And your favorite wilderness destination?

The more remote, the better. Alaska—Southeast, Prince William Sound, all over—those are my favorite places. What’s your biggest contradiction in terms of trying to live the life you want to live? I rip around in my own jet. It’s not a super defensible behavior, you know, and I care about things like global warming and so forth but, you know, my family consumes an almost incomprehensible amount of stuff. I feel bad about that. And yet, to be clear, there is a role for certain kinds of moral leadership when it comes to these issues but at the same time these challenges will not be met by getting a few thousand rich people to change their behavior somewhat. In this case, it is the other 7 billion people. We have to all change our habits collectively or it’s not going to amount to a hill of beans.

Who do you admire that we would be surprised to know about? The people I most admire are folks 99.99 percent of Americans have never heard of, thinkers and scientists who have advanced ideas that have shaped society or have the potential to shape the society in very important ways. The economist Sam Boles. (J.) Doyne Farmer (a physicist).

Who’s a better guitar player, you or Paul Allen?

Him, by a 1,000 times. I’m a beginning guitar player. (Hanauer plays a “very nice” Martin D-41. The song he’s having the toughest time mastering: Black Dog by Led Zeppelin).

This interview has been edited and condensed.

  • Danny Ngan

    Danny Ngan is a photographer specializing in creative portraiture, events and roller derby.