5 Tycoons Who Want to Close the Wealth Gap

By Hannah Dreier

As the middle class struggles to make gains and President Barack Obama strives to shine a spotlight on the issue of income inequality, an unlikely constituency is looking for ways to close the nation's growing wealth gap: a handful of top U.S. business tycoons.

These advocates point to notions of fairness and admit to twinges of guilt, but the core concern driving all of them -- left, right and libertarian -- is a belief that the economy doesn't function efficiently when the wealth gap is wide. One suggestion is pressuring fellow entrepreneurs to pay workers more; another is simply giving their money back to the government to redistribute.

Since roughly 1980, the wealthy have been prospering while the middle class has stagnated or fallen behind. Members of the 0.1% now make at least $1.7 million a year and grab 10% of the national income, while the median annual household income has dropped, landing at $51,017.

The gap is growing wider. Income for the highest-earning 1% of Americans soared 31% from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation. For everyone else, it inched up an average of 0.4%.

As U.S. society has grown more unequal, rich men and women have set up clubs and foundations to encourage economic parity, and they are actively lobbying for change.

The figure of the fairness-conscious billionaire has a precedent, said Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton. During the Gilded Age, at the end of the 1800s, tycoons took steps to increase equality and help the working class.

"Names like Carnegie, Mellon and Rockefeller -- the [Warren] Buffet and [Bill] Gates of their days -- grace universities, museums and medical centers in part because the originators of those fortunes gave back," Norton said. "In the same way that some businesspeople are now taking steps to address climate change due to its effects on costs and revenues ... the notion that inequality can be bad not just for ethical reasons, but for financial reasons, is one that is increasingly embraced by businesspeople."

Here's a look at some of these opponents of the widening gap between the poor and, well, themselves.

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