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The.Ink Interviews the Architect of the Billionaires’ Tax

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Anand Giridharadas interviewed Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who is sponsoring a ”billionaires’ tax,” which would tax assets, not just income. This tax on the growth in their assets would affect between 600-700 billionaires. The revenue from the billionaires’ tax would pay for a large part of President Biden’s proposed budget plan. Two members of the Democratic Party—Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—have blocked the bill, objecting to its cost and to raising taxes to pay for it. Republicans will unanimously oppose it, so Biden can’t afford to lose even one vote. The discussion has gone on for months, and the Republicans hope to stall and stall, then win enough seats a year from now to destroy Biden’s plans and his presidency.

In another interview, Anand talks with Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman, who explains how the wealth tax would work. In a fascinating overview, he says the tax would affect fewer than 1,000 people: it’s the most progressive tax possible, targeted at the tippy top. It’s also technically different from a wealth tax in that it does not tax wealth itself, but the increase in wealth — what economists call unrealized capital gains.

To get an idea of who will pay the tax, scan Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. Elon Musk is #1, with more than $200 billion. Jeff Bezos is #2.

If The.Ink interviews are behind a paywall, you should subscribe. Anand is consistently interesting.

ANAND: Is the wealth tax on? Is this in the final package? Is this thing happening?

SENATOR WYDEN: We’re pulling out all the stops. Tonight we’re going to start talking about it in more detail. I have been unable to see even one senator getting up and actually saying, “Gee, I think it’s OK that billionaires are not paying any taxes for years on end.”

What the opponents are trying to do, because they aren’t willing to get up and actually act like they’re sympathetic to billionaires, they’re running the old FUD strategy — fear, uncertainty and doubt. If you can just throw enough FUD at it, then senators say, “Oh, gee, I really don’t know.”

ANAND: I’m hearing from a lot of people that Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have resisted even modest tax increases on corporations and rich people, that they’re with you on this. I’m curious: How did they get behind an unprecedented and historic wealth tax instead of relatively more modest ideas?

SENATOR WYDEN: Well, first of all, we’re calling this the “billionaires’ income tax,” so that people know that billionaires should pay taxes every year, just the way nurses and firefighters are.

All of the members are still making up their minds and saying we want to know more information about this and that, but around here, everything is always impossible until 15 minutes before it comes together — and particularly when you’re taking on such enormous, concentrated power. Billionaires know lots and lots of United States senators.

Editor’s Note (me): After Anand published this interview, and after Senator Wyden released his bill, Senator Manchin said he was not likely to support it because it targets such a small and specific number of people. It’s “divisive,” he said, to single out billionaires. When you don’t want to do something (like tax billionaires), any excuse will do.

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