Really? A billionaire tax? Now? Are you kidding me?
Why it's still a real possibility
President Biden’s budget, which came out yesterday, proposes a new minimum tax of 20 percent on households worth more than $100 million — which the White House says will reduce federal budget deficits by $1 trillion over a decade. The tax would apply only to the top 0.01 percent -- the richest 1 percent of the richest 1 percent. Half of the expected $1 trillion in revenue would come from 704 households worth $1 billion or more.
If enacted, it would effectively prevent the wealthiest sliver of America from paying lower rates than middle-class families, while helping to generate revenues to fuel Biden’s domestic ambitions and keep the deficit in check relative to the U.S. economy.
Recall that America’s 704 billionaires have increased their wealth by $1.7 trillion since the start of the pandemic in February 2020, while most Americans have struggled to make ends meet. That means the billionaires could theoretically pay for everything Joe Biden and House Democrats have proposed — from childcare to climate measures — and still be as wealthy as they were at the start of the pandemic. Elon Musk’s pandemic gains, for example, could cover the cost of tuition for 5.5 million community college students and feed 29 million low-income public-school kids, while still leaving Musk richer than he was before Covid.
The dirty little secret is the ultra-rich don’t live off their paychecks. They live off their stock portfolios. Jeff Bezos’s salary from Amazon was $81,840 in 2020 yet he rakes in some $149,353 every minute from the soaring value of his Amazon stocks, which is how he affords five mansions, including one in Washington DC with 25 bathrooms. (Why would anyone want 25 bathrooms?)
So if you want to tax billionaires, you have to go after their wealth.
But does Biden’s plan have a snowball’s chance of getting this enacted in the hell called Washington? The problem is the old political chicken-and-egg: A big reason why the super-wealthy have done so well is they’ve bankrolled politicians who alter laws (such as tax laws) to give them even more wealth. They’ve bought armies of lobbyists to keep their taxes minuscule and create tax loopholes large enough to drive their Lamborghinis through.
ProPublica’s bombshell report last June showing America’s super-wealthy paying little or nothing in taxes revealed not only their humongous wealth but also how they’ve parlayed that wealth into political power to shrink their taxes. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in America, reportedly paid no federal income taxes in 2007 and 2011. Elon Musk, the second richest, paid none in 2018. Warren Buffett, often ranking number 3, paid a tax rate of 0.1 percent between 2014 and 2018.
All previous efforts to tax America’s super-rich have failed amid major political head winds. Republican senators obviously won’t bite the billionaire hands that feed them, and so – yet again – Biden needs every Democratic senator’s vote. But why would any sane person who has followed politics over the last year suppose that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will go along? Haven’t we been here before?
Yes, except that for months now Manchin has been on the receiving end of unremitting horse dung — not just from progressives but from establishment Democrats who accuse him of torpedoing any chance Biden and the Democrats have of retaining control over Congress after the midterms. Manchin has also been criticized by the mainstream press for taking big money from coal interests and then voting down climate measures (see yesterday’s New York Times front page feature story, here). In other words, Manchin badly needs some cred.
Manchin has also expressed concern about the size of the federal budget deficit. And in December, he told the White House he would support some version of a tax targeting billionaire wealth.
What really convinces me Biden’s billionaire tax stands a chance is that I doubt the White House would risk another big public loss to Manchin. After getting all hell beat out of them for building public expectations of passing Build Back Better, only to have Manchin kill it, Biden and his staff would not propose another big initiative unless Manchin had already given it the green light.
What about Sinema? She’ll go along with whatever Manchin ultimately votes for.
So a billionaire tax is by no means dead. Even in this disappointing year, I’m staying hopeful.
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