Queen Elizabeth II presents Prince Charles, Prince of Wales with the Royal Horticultural Society's Victoria Medal of Honour during a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show on May 18, 2009 in London. (Photo by Sang Tan/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

First a Billionaire. Now a King

We expected Charles to get the crown. We didn't expect him to make a billion-dollar fortune first.

By November 1948, the postwar "Baby Boom" in the United States had been roaring along for nearly three years. But America's media spotlight didn't go whole-hog on babies until that November, the month that saw the young Queen Elizabeth give birth to her first, the British empire's future king.

Step up, Charles. Share the wealth.

New first-time moms in the USA basked in this royal motherhood glow. Many of those moms with newborn sons--mine included--would spend the next decade or so only half-jokingly assuring one and all that their little one would no doubt be sitting in the White House just about the same time little Charley made it to his throne.

None of us U.S.-born sons of '48, as life turned out, ever made it into the White House. And poor Charles, for his part, ended up having to wait for his throne far longer than anyone in 1948 likely ever imagined. But something else unexpected played out in that long interim. Poor Charles became fabulously rich.

Now UK royals, of course, have always been wealthy, but their relative wealth status changed over time as the transition from feudal times to modern industrial capitalism left royalty looking distinctly up to the wealthiest of their subjects. This new corporate "royalty" made its millions relentlessly squeezing average people, and by the 1940s--on both sides of the Atlantic--the "subjects" of these kingpins had had enough. They mobilized and created societies truly willing to "tax the rich."

In the UK, the tax rate on top-bracket income would hit 98 percent during World War II and not drop down from that lofty level until 1953, and then only to 95 percent. The U.S. top tax rate that same year trailed only a few percentage points behind.

None of this had much of an impact on young Queen Elizabeth. She had inherited a couple castles and estates from her dad the late king and, as queen, held control over the Duchy of Lancaster, then a stash of mainly land-based wealth. But no one saw Elizabeth as any symbol of spectacular grand fortune--or expected her reign to become a time when grand fortune could flourish.

That perspective would change. By 1977, the year of the queen's Silver Jubilee, the political winds had begun to take a distinctly rich people-friendly turn. In 1979, outspoken free-marketeer Margaret Thatcher would become the UK prime minister, and her political soulmate Ronald Reagan would win the White House in 1980. Both moved quickly to cut taxes and regulations that burdened the rich. Both would attack--aggressively--the trade unions that stood up for working people.

Young Prince Charles would soon be exploiting the myriad money-making opportunities this new era offered. By tradition, Charles held the Duchy of Cornwall, historically mostly a collection of assorted estates. Charles would modernize this stash of royal wealth, in the process turning his "landed gentry pile of land," notes analyst Laura Clancy, into "a commercial business" with over 150 staffers wheeling and dealing Charles to ever grander fortune.

In his last princely decade, the New York Times estimates, Charles watched his money managers increase his Duchy's portfolio value and profits "by about 50 percent." The Duchy last year brought Charles $28 million in income. His official salary as prince: just $1.1 million.

Charles as king now gains his mom's Duchy of Lancaster, a portfolio worth over $950 million. Throw into the royal family's overall fortune the queen's private personal wealth and the "Crown Estate," a package of holdings that last year delivered to the royals a $99-million "Sovereign Grant," and you end up with a royal family nest-egg worth somewhere around $28 billion.

No one knows exactly how high that nest-egg figure goes, mainly because no "sunshine" rules govern the royal fortune. And not much in the way of taxes impact that fortune either. Bequests in the UK valued at over $380,000 face a 40 percent inheritance tax, but Charles will pay not a penny of tax on the royal wealth he has inherited. The British crown carries an inheritance tax exemption.

Capital gains tax? The royals don't legally have to bother with that either. Charles, in fact, doesn't have a legal obligation to pay tax on any of his income, but he does make an annual contribution to the UK's tax authorities. How much he pays --and how much in expenses he claims against his income--remains privileged private information.

In a sense, Charles as wealth-builder has followed in the footsteps of his royal namesakes. In the mid-17th century, Antigua ambassador-at-large Dorbrene O'Marde points out, King Charles I opened the trade between Britain and Africa that would lead to trafficking in human slaves. King Charles II owned the company, O'Marde recently told Democracy Now!, "that moved more Africans off of the continent into the Americas than any other company in history."

O'Marde chairs the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Commission, one of the many efforts now underway in former British colonies to get Britain, as O'Marde puts it, "to reassess its role in the genocide, in the plunder, in the violence that it exerted on African people." Leading those efforts: a commission created by Caribbean heads of state to make the case for bringing justice to "the victims of Crimes against Humanity" that range from genocide to racial apartheid.

This Caricom Reparations Commission has developed an action plan that details proposals to redress a wide range of the wrongs inflicted over 400 years of British and European empire-building. One of these proposals would address the hypertension and type-two diabetes within today's African-descended Caribbean population. No group globally has a higher incidence of these chronic ailments.

Another part of the plan seeks to undo the lasting economic damage done under the British imperial slogan that "not a nail is to be made in the colonies." That approach denied the Caribbean "participation in Europe's industrialization process" and limited the region to producing and exporting raw materials within a system "designed to extract maximum value from the region and enable maximum wealth accumulation in Europe."

This past June, Charles recognized this history and bolstered his image as someone who cares deeply about matters that go beyond the traditional ceremonial obligations of British monarchs. He told British Commonwealth leaders meeting in Rwanda that he "cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery's enduring impact."

Charles has also been vocal--for decades--on the environmental catastrophes that so threaten humanity. Now, as king, he has an opportunity to help deepen the world's understanding of the threats and the injustices humanity faces. But taking that course would require from Charles an intensity of introspection that no British royal has ever yet attempted.

The British empire, points out Institute for Policy Studies analyst Basav Sen, "quite literally" opened "the fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution, the driving force behind climate change." And this leadership role rested on the "plunder of other parts of the world," colonial centuries that "provided much of the capital investment for the large-scale buildout of manufacturing facilities and machinery."

That plunder has left the empire's colonized societies deeply indebted and distinctly vulnerable to the horrors of a climate change they did not cause, as the current tragedy in Pakistan--where flood waters have submerged a third of the nation--is vividly now attesting.

Pakistan, notes environmental journalist Emily Atkin, has so far "racked up $30 billion in damages from this year's flooding." The UK has so far come up with $1.7 million in aid.

British colonialism, Atkins adds, has left for nations like Pakistan "a legacy of massive climate vulnerability." For the UK--and Charles--that era has left "a legacy of massive wealth."

Charles could lead the way to addressing both these legacies. For starters, says Environmental Grantmakers Association president Tamara Toles O'Laughlin, he could make a call for debt forgiveness. And Charles could dramatically signal the importance of that call by taking one simple step. He could pledge a significant chunk of his own immense personal fortune to the Pakistani relief effort.

Step up, Charles. Share the wealth.

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