America’s billionaires take center stage in national politics, colliding with populist Democrats

The political and economic power wielded by the approximately 750 wealthiest people in America has become a sudden flash point in the 2020 presidential election, as the nation’s billionaires push back with increasing ferocity against calls by liberal politicians to vastly reduce their fortunes and clout.

On Thursday, Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire and former mayor of New York City, took steps to enter the presidential race, a move that would make him one of four billionaires who either plan to seek or have expressed interest in seeking the nation’s highest office in 2020. His decision came one week after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) proposed vastly expanding her “wealth tax” on the nation’s biggest wealth holders and one month after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said America should not have any billionaires at all.

The populist onslaught has ensnared Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, led to billionaire hand-wringing on cable news, and sparked a panicked discussion among wealthy Americans and their financial advisers about how to prepare for a White House controlled by populist Democrats.

Past presidential elections have involved allegations of class warfare, but rarely have those debates centered on such a small subset of people.

“For the first time ever, we are having a national political conversation about billionaires in American life. And that is because many people are noticing the vast differences in wealth and opportunity,” said Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University.

The growing hostilities between the ascendant populist wing of the Democratic Party and the nation’s tech and financial elite have spilled repeatedly into public view over the past several months, but they reached a crescendo last week with news that Bloomberg may enter the Democratic primary. With the stock market at an all-time high, the debate about wealth accumulation and inequality has become a top issue in the 2020 campaign.

The leaders of the anti-billionaire populist surge, Warren and Sanders, have cast their plans to vastly increase taxes on the wealthy as necessary to fix several decades of widening inequality and make necessary investments in health care, child care spending and other government programs they say will help working-class Americans.

Financial disparities between the rich and everyone else have widened over the past several decades in America, with inequality returning to levels not seen since the 1920s, as the richest 400 Americans now control more wealth than the bottom 60 percent of the wealth distribution, according to research by Gabriel Zucman, a left-leaning economist at the University of California at Berkeley. The poorest 60 percent of America has seen its share of the national wealth fall from 5.7 percent in 1987 to 2.1 percent in 2014, Zucman found.

But the efforts at redistribution pushed by Warren and Sanders have elicited a fierce and sometimes personal backlash from the billionaire class who stand to lose the most. At least 16 billionaires have in recent months spoken out against what they regard as the danger posed by the populist Democrats, particularly over their proposals to enact a “wealth tax” on vast fortunes, with many expressing concern they will blow the election to Trump by veering too far left.

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Bloomberg’s potential presidential bid follows that of fellow billionaires Tom Steyer, a major Democratic donor, and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who in September suspended his independent presidential bid. Steyer has proposed his own wealth tax, but Schultz ripped the idea as “ridiculous,” while Bloomberg suggested it was not constitutional and raised the prospect of America turning into Venezuela.

Piling on against the wealth tax have been corporate celebrities from Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Zuckerberg suggested Sanders’s call to abolish billionaires could hurt philanthropies and scientific research by giving the government too much decision-making power. Microsoft co-founder Gates criticized Warren’s wealth tax and mused about its impact on “the incentive system” for making money.

David Rubenstein, the billionaire co-founder of the Carlyle Group, told CNBC that a wealth tax would not “solve all of our society’s problems” and raised questions about its practicality. Also appearing on CNBC, billionaire investor Leon Cooperman choked up while discussing the impact a wealth tax could have on his family.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a multi-billionaire and the world’s richest man, asked Bloomberg months ago to consider running for president in 2020, Recode reported Saturday. A Bloomberg spokesman did not immediately return a request to confirm the call. (Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.) An Amazon spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

“I don’t need Elizabeth Warren, or the government, giving away my money,” Cooperman said. “[Warren] and Bernie Sanders are presenting a lot of ideas to the public that are morally, and socially, bankrupt.”

Then there is perhaps the most prominent wealthy person of all likely to stand in the way of populist Democrats’ proposals: President Trump. Asked about the wealth tax, a White House spokesman declined to comment directly on the proposal but said in an email, “President Trump has been very clear: America will never be a socialist country.”

But there are signs the pushback is having little impact on nixing the idea in Democrats’ minds. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who has endorsed Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination, told The Washington Post he is crafting a new wealth tax proposal to introduce in the House of Representatives. Boyle’s involvement suggests the idea has broader political support among Democrats than previously thought.

Warren’s campaign has created a tax calculator that shows how much money multimillionaires would pay under her plan. The initial wealth tax raised by Warren would raise close to $3 trillion over 10 years — enough money to fund universal child care, make public colleges and universities tuition-free, and forgive a majority of the student debt held in America, according to some nonpartisan estimates.

America has long had rich people, but economists say the current scale of inequality may be without precedent. The number of billionaires in America swelled to 749 in 2018, a nearly 5 percent jump, and they now hold close to $4 trillion collectively.

“The hyper concentration of wealth within the top 0.1 percent is a mortal threat to the American economy and way of life,” Boyle said in an interview. “If you work hard and play by the rules, then you should be able to get ahead. But the recent and unprecedented shift of resources to billionaires threatens this. A wealth tax on billionaires is fair and, indeed, necessary.”

But conservatives and even many Democrats have raised a number of objections to the wealth tax, arguing it could be easily skirted and may have limited political appeal. Microsoft’s Gates, famous for his philanthropic efforts, joked to the New York Times that it could erase his entire fortune. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) this week proposed a surtax on couples earning more than $2 million a year to address what they framed as unfairness in the tax code exacerbated by the Republican tax cuts, while stopping short of the starker wealth tax.

In an email, Bloomberg adviser Howard Wolfson denied that the prospect of paying the wealth tax factors into the former mayor’s interest in running for president: “Mike’s not worried about what would happen if Elizabeth Warren won. He’s worried about what would happen if Donald Trump won.”

Still, the ultrarich have still taken notice of the threat, according to interviews with half a dozen financial planners and wealth managers.

Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, whose membership includes many of the country’s biggest financial firms, said members of the business community are “agonizing” over the prospect of having to choose between Warren and Trump in the general election.

“A lot of people in the Wall Street crowd still think the world is top-down,” Wylde said. “They think the people at the top of the pecking order are still making the decisions or driving the debate, as opposed to the new reality of grass-roots mobilization. They don’t realize the way pushback to their criticism goes viral.”

Lance Drucker, president and CEO of Drucker Wealth Management, said he has recently heard alarm from many of his millionaire clients over plans like Warren’s to implement a wealth tax on fortunes worth more than $50 million.

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“Honestly, it’s only been the last month when people started getting worried,” said Drucker in an October interview. “These tax proposals are scaring the bejeezus out of people who have accumulated a lot of wealth.”

Some financial planners are urging wealthy clients to transfer millions to their offspring now, before Democrats again raise estate taxes. Attorneys have begun looking at whether a divorce could help the super-rich avoid the wealth tax. And some wealthy people are asking whether they should consider renouncing their U.S. citizenship and moving to Europe or elsewhere abroad ahead of Democrats’ potential tax hikes.

“You’re hearing it already,” said Jonathan Lachowitz, a financial planner at White Lighthouse Investment Management, who said he has heard discussions about leaving the country and renouncing citizenship or other legal tax planning moves due to Democrats’ tax plans from several multimillionaires. “As the frustration mounts and tax burdens rise, people will consider it, just the way you have New Yorkers moving to Florida.”

Tax Cuts for the Wealthy Make Inequality Worse

As the rich have gotten richer, U.S. tax policy became more regressive.

Here’s a short test of your value judgments. (There’s no right answer.) If free markets start dishing out increasingly unequal pretax incomes, should the government

  • ignore it,
  • mitigate it by making the tax system more progressive, or
  • exacerbate it by making the tax system less progressive?

The question isn’t hypothetical. And you may be surprised to learn that the U.S. political system has given a clear answer: Exacerbate it.

In September, the U.S. Census Bureau released two important reports containing data on inequality. First came the annual report on poverty and income inequality, based on the Current Population Survey, which showed inequality in 2018 just a hair’s breadth below the all-time high set in 2017. This finding received little coverage.

But the media snapped to attention about two weeks later, when the bureau released different data, this time from the American Community Survey, showing that inequality in 2018 surpassed last year’s high. New records get attention.

Superficially, it sounds as if we have conflicting data: One measure of inequality points up while the other points down. But the differences between the two measures are tiny. By either measure, income inequality in America now stands at, or just a tad below, its all-time high. The essential fact is that inequality has been rising for almost 40 years. Whether the high-water mark came in 2017 or 2018 is immaterial.

What about tax progressivity? Two economists at the University of California, Berkeley, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, just published an important new book, “The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay.” Perhaps the most stunning finding: “For the first time in the past hundred years, the working class today pays higher tax rates than billionaires.”

Chew on that for a moment. You may remember Warren Buffett bemoaning that he paid a lower average tax rate than his secretary. Apparently, he wasn’t alone.

Reaching this conclusion took a lot of number-crunching. The federal personal income tax, which gets the most attention, is certainly progressive. But Messrs. Saez and Zucman went beyond that measure in their analysis. They took great pains to evaluate all federal, state and local taxes (including the highly regressive Trump tax cuts), and to attribute to shareholders tax payments by corporations. This last adjustment is crucial because most of the ultrarich earn their money from investments, not paychecks.

Messrs. Saez and Zucman also painstakingly traced tax records as far back as possible—in some cases, all the way to 1913, when the 16th Amendment allowed a federal income tax. These efforts found that the average tax rate (taxes as a percentage of income) on the top 0.1% of income earners rose from about 19% in 1913 to an average of 53% between 1930 and 1974. An “Age of Progressivity,” you might call it. After that, however, policy reversed, and the tax rate on the upper 0.1% has now fallen to about 31%.

For the 400 highest earners, whose taxes can be traced back only to 1960, the drop was a veritable implosion: from 56% in 1960 to 23% today. As a consequence, working-class Americans now pay the tax collector a slightly larger share of their incomes (about 25%) than do the richest 400, who earn more than $450 million a year on average. Does that strike you as fair?

How did this happen? Messrs. Saez and Zucman find that the biggest driver was the collapse of the corporate tax as a source of revenue, followed by the near-death of the estate tax. Both were policy choices.

When we juxtapose the data on inequality with the data on taxes, a sad story emerges. Since about 1980, the market has been handing out increasingly unequal rewards in the form of pretax incomes. This trend toward greater inequality isn’t uniquely American—within-country inequality has risen in most advanced market economies. But instead of mitigating that trend by making the tax system more progressive, America’s political system did precisely the opposite. The present Age of Inequality is also an Age of Regressivity.

One can perhaps excuse Ronald Reagan, who couldn’t have known at the time of the 1981 tax cuts that the market would produce more inequality for decades. But by the time of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, George W. Bush’s team certainly knew that. And by 2017, when Donald Trump hammered the latest tax regressivity nail into the inequality coffin, virtually every sentient American knew that inequality was at or near a historic high.

Since it’s football season, we should probably call those tax changes “unnecessary roughness.” On the field, the referee would blow the whistle and penalize the culprits 15 yards. But our political system seems to impose no penalty for piling on. That’s just sad.

Mr. Blinder is a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Bernie Sanders Calls for 8% Wealth Tax on Richest Americans

Plan would increase federal revenue by about 10%—all from around 180,000 households

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed an annual wealth tax topping out at 8% for the richest Americans, offering the farthest-reaching Democratic plan to pay for expanded government programs and break up concentrated fortunes.

Mr. Sanders’ plan would hit more households and raise more money than the tax proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, his chief rival for progressive voters. According to an analysis by economists who consulted with both campaigns, Mr. Sanders’ plan would generate $4.35 trillion over a decade, compared with Ms. Warren’s $2.75 trillion.

Mr. Sanders’ plan would increase federal revenue by about 10%, all from around 180,000 households.

“Enough is enough,” Mr. Sanders, a senator from Vermont, said Tuesday. “We are going to take on the billionaire class, substantially reduce wealth inequality in America and stop our democracy from turning into a corrupt oligarchy.”

‘Enough is enough,’ Sen. Sanders said. ‘We are going to take on the billionaire class, substantially reduce wealth inequality in America and stop our democracy from turning into a corrupt oligarchy.’ PHOTO: GERARDO BELLO/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The tax would apply to married couples with net worth of at least $32 million and individuals with net worth of at least $16 million. The rate would start at 1% per year and rise to 8% for married couples with assets of least $10 billion. That 8% rate would mean that megabillionaires who don’t earn at least an 8% return would see their fortunes shrink, and Mr. Sanders said Tuesday that there should be no billionaires.

During this election cycle, Democrats have offered more expansive proposals to tax the super-rich than they did in years past. That is in part a reaction to income and wealth disparities, and it is also an attempt to fill what they see as gaps in the income-tax system.

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Under the current tax code, gains in wealth aren’t taxed as income unless people sell assets and realize gains. Unrealized gains also escape income taxation when a person dies, though the estate tax may still apply.

But implementing a wealth tax would face challenges. Such a change would require new rules and procedures for determining wealth and additional Internal Revenue Service resources to prevent tax avoidance and tax evasion. A wealth tax would also have unknown effects on economic growth and could be declared unconstitutional because courts could declare it a direct tax that would have to be apportioned among states according to their population.

Mr. Sanders calls for imposing an exit tax of up to 60% on wealthy people who renounce their U.S. citizenship. He would also expand the IRS to audit at least 30% of people in the lowest wealth-tax bracket and audit all billionaires every year.

Analysts have questioned whether wealth taxes would actually raise as much money as the campaigns estimate, both because of tax avoidance and because of disagreements over how much wealth is concentrated at the top of the distribution.

“These wealth taxes raise a lot of money, perhaps not as much as the advocates hope,” said Janet Holtzblatt, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, a Washington group run by a former Obama administration official.