Bloomberg, Dimon and Gates call liberal tax ideas unfair. But excessive wealth is the real threat.
Credit…CJ Gunther/EPA, via Shutterstock
The billionaire class has begun unloading on Elizabeth Warren. A few days ago, Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase — at just $1.6 billion in net worth, a comparative piker — said Senator Warren “vilifies successful people.” Then Bill Gates ($107 billion), in an onstage interview with The Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, mused about what his tax bill might be in a Warren presidency and left the door open to voting for Donald Trump should Democrats nominate Ms. Warren. And then Michael Bloomberg ($52 billion), who had previously criticized Ms. Warren as anti-corporate, signaled his intention to jump into the race, obviously out of concern at her rise.
I’m not expert enough to judge the wisdom of Senator Warren’s proposed wealth tax. I know that there are questions about its constitutionality and that several European nations tried a similar approach and found it unworkable (though four countries still have it). I don’t get why the candidates aren’t simply proposing to increase marginal income tax rates on dollars earned above some very high figure. That seems a lot more straightforward to me.
So this column is not a brief for Ms. Warren’s wealth tax or for her candidacy — I don’t have a preferred candidate. Instead, I want to make a simple plea to the country’s billionaires: Multibillion-dollar fortunes are often called excessive and decadent. But here’s something they’re rarely called but ought to be: anti-democratic. These fortunes will destroy our democracy.
Why “anti-democratic”? Why would it matter to our democracy whether Jeff Bezos is worth $113 billion (his current figure) or $13 billion?
This is carnage, plain and simple. No democratic society can let that keep happening and expect to stay a democracy. It will produce a middle and working classes with no sense of security, and when people have no sense that the system is providing them with basic security, they’ll make some odd and desperate choices.
This is obviously not hypothetical. It’s happening. It’s what gave us Mr. Trump (well, that plus the campaign lies). It’s what made Britons vote Leave (well, that plus the campaign lies). It’s what has sparked protests from France to Chile to Lebanon, and it’s what is making the Chinese model — no democracy, but plenty of security — more attractive to a number of developing countries around the world than the American model. Our billionaires ought to ponder this.
I imagine that Mr. Gates is repulsed by Mr. Trump on some level, and at the end of the day probably couldn’t vote for him. But if I could meet Mr. Gates, I’d ask him: Sir, do you not see the link between your vast fortune and the ascendance of Donald Trump? If not, I implore you to connect some dots. Wealth has shifted to the top. It has been taken away from the middle class. That makes people anxious. Anxiety opens the door to demagogues. It’s not complicated.
We need changes in our laws and institutional structures that will alter what economists call pretax distribution. This is a point made by the economist Dean Baker — that income inequality is less a result of tax policy than laws and regulations that have made the rich richer before taxes are even imposed. These changes have to do with
Billionaires will protest that they’d rather give it away than trust the government with it. I applaud their generosity. But even someone as rich as Michael Dell, who went on a rather infamous riff along these lines at Davos, could not build a nationwide high-speed rail system, clean the country’s air and water (and keep them clean), create a network of free opioid clinics across the country or give towns that have been hollowed out by the global economy a second chance. Only government can do those things. MORE