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September 20, 2022

Patagonia’s Socialist Billionaire Tax Evader

A leftist billionaire gives away the company to save the planet … and avoid paying his “fair share” of taxes.

Those of a certain income level and love of the outdoors will immediately recognize the Patagonia brand, one whose pricey outdoor accessories made a billionaire out of company founder Yvon Chouinard. It’s a success story based on hard work and expertise in the product line, as Chouinard initially made gear and apparel for rock climbing before entering the retail world. Unlike a lot of tech billionaires, though, Chouinard found his success later in life, and the man who says he “never wanted to be a businessman” became more interested in his legacy.

To that end, Chouinard claims, “Earth is now our only shareholder.”

It was a relatively simple-to-explain transaction: “100% of the company’s voting stock transfers to the Patagonia Purpose Trust, created to protect the company’s values; and 100% of the nonvoting stock had been given to the Holdfast Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature. The funding will come from Patagonia: Each year, the money we make after reinvesting in the business will be distributed as a dividend to help fight the crisis.”

That total is estimated to be $100 million, which will certainly draw a large flock of vulture environmentalist groups looking to get their share of the spoils. In addition, the formation of Holdfast as a 501(c)(4) means they can make unlimited political donations, so add various progressive politicians to the line.

Patagonia was already what’s known as a B Corp, which meant that it adhered to a set of environmental, social, and governance standards to maintain certification. But by divesting his company this way instead of simply selling it, Chouinard goes from paying an estimated $700 million in federal capital gains taxes to paying just $17.5 million in gift taxes for the shares handed off to Holdfast, according to a Bloomberg story. That tax avoidance — by a self-described “avowed socialist,” no less — is an angle not played up in other coverage of the story, which focused strictly on the potential in combating climate change.

(As noted by political analyst Jim Geraghty, Patagonia has also served as a defense contractor — another aspect of the story glossed over in the mainstream cooing over their commitment to beat back global warming.)

Some of the coverage has compared Chouinard’s business move to that of another billionaire who recently made a similar divestment to maintain his legacy. But as ProPublica ominously put it, “Through a series of opaque transactions over the past two years, Barre Seid, a 90-year-old manufacturing magnate, gave the massive sum (of $1.65 billion) to a nonprofit run by Leonard Leo, who co-chairs the conservative legal group the Federalist Society.” Essentially, what Seid did was sell his Tripp Lite business to a nonprofit called Marble Freedom Trust, which in turn quickly sold Tripp Lite off to another player in that industry. This enabled Seid to avoid paying $400 million in taxes.

What we have here is estate planning writ large. And while media outlets are praising Chouinard for stewarding the planet, Barre Seid and his “dark money” are being treated like evil incarnate because he chose to promote conservative causes. In either case, this approach irks some observers, including Boston College law professor Ray Madoff. “We are letting people opt out of supporting all the expenses of government to do whatever they want with their money,” he said. “This is highly problematic from the point of view of democracy, and it can mean a higher tax burden for the rest of Americans.”

Setting aside the fact that we’re not a democracy, the issue isn’t so much what billionaires do with their own money because they took the risks and did the hard work to earn what they have. Compare that to government, which takes no risks and uses the letter of a complex tax code massaged by umpteen lobbyists to make its money — and still comes up woefully short of covering outlays. Government doesn’t have to work hard to attract grifters, but attract them it does. And it looks like the legacies of Chouinard and Seid will be directed toward that honey pot, too.

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