Marisa Wright: Billionaire tears

Sunday, December 1, 2019 - 12:58pm

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In early November, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire and former mayor of New York City, entered the 2020 Democratic primary for president of the United States. Bloomberg entered the race to add to the moderate lane because apparently one billionaire and another mayor of New York City just werent enough. 

Bloomberg’s entry into the race could be motivated by concerns about the rise of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and her wealth tax, which would tax two cents on every dollar of one’s assets beyond $50 million. This policy would disproportionately affect billionaires, because billionaires own a disproportionate amount of wealth in the U.S. In fact, the top three richest men in America — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett — own more wealth than the entire bottom 50 percent of the U.S. population, which is about 160 million people. It is important to note that gender and racial disparities in wealth inequality are particularly prevalent in the U.S. 

Yet, Bloomberg isn’t alone in attacking Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ stances against billionaires. In fact, Bloomberg’s fellow billionaires Leon Cooperman, Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Ken Lagone and Jamie Dimon have also criticized Warren and Sanders for their commentary on billionaires. 

Cooperman came out in support of Bloomberg’s candidacy, saying: “He understands how the world works. He’s not a hater.” 

Later in the month, Cooperman responded to an ad by Warren’s campaign that addressed billionaires, saying: “She’s disgraceful. She doesn’t know who the f*** she’s tweeting. I gave away more in the year than she has in her whole f***ing lifetime.” 

The billionaire feels threatened. Poor billionaires. Well, except for the fact that neither Warren nor Sanders’ tax policies for billionaires would substantially reduce their amount of money. 

In response to the growing whining by billionaires, Warren released her billionaire tax calculator. It has ready calculations of how much billionaires like Bloomberg and Republican donor Charles Koch would pay under her wealth tax. Bloomberg’s estimated net worth is about $54 billion; he would pay about $3 billion in taxes, leaving him with a meager $51 billion. Gates, who recently complained about Warren taxing him $100 billion, would be taxed about $6 billion, leaving him with a paltry $101 billion

Some argue that we should be thankful for philanthropic billionaires like Bill Gates. Gates, famous for being a co-founder of Microsoft, also co-founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It wasn’t for purely altruistic motives, though. Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” has said, “Gates was the first one who really started and shifted his image really drastically from sort of … well, Darth Vader (by engaging in philanthropy).” 

To be fair, the Gates Foundation has done a lot of good in the public health realm — such as supporting efforts to eradicate malaria, improving access to vaccines and expanding access to contraception worldwide. Still, Bill and Melinda Gates donated only $4.78 billion in 2017, which is about a billion and a half less than what they would pay under Warren’s wealth tax. It is also important to note a billionaire’s philanthropic donations are not guaranteed; they could stop flowing or significantly decrease at any moment. Philanthropy is not a substitute for taxation. A plan like Warren’s or Sanders’ would guarantee they pay their fair share to society. 

Warren’s wealth tax could be used to fund universal childcare, student loan debt cancellation, universal free college and more. Her six-cent tax on every dollar in net worth over $1 billion will be used to pay for Medicare For All, which would guarantee health care to every single American as a basic human right. 

What’s really frustrating about this entire conversation is that we are only listening to these people because they have a lot of money. Billionaire Tom Steyer has bought his place on to the Democratic debate stage — by spending $10 million dollars just to gain $1 from the required 130,000 donors — and continues to survive in the race because he can spend millions on TV ads. Being the CEO of a popular coffee company or being a hedge fund manager does not make you qualified to be president of the U.S. any more than being a reality TV host and fraudulent real estate businessman does. 

Why aren’t we seeing the same amount of — or more — coverage of people whom these policies would help? Where are the interviews of people working three jobs to support their families or those who are being crushed with medical debt? Why do we care more about the opinions of a few rich people than the millions who are not insured at all or the 45 million people who would have their student loan debt canceled under Warren’s policy?

Well, Americans are particularly inclined to love rags-to-riches stories and find rich people aspirational. Millionaires and billionaires are ostensibly the American dream come true. And yet, economic inequality hurts everyone, even the rich.

Bloomberg’s entry into the primary — and the collective tears of billionaires — is emblematic of how people who are empowered by the status quo will always work to maintain that status quo. Power is hard to let go. They’ll dig their heels in and clench their firsts, but we can change the systems that allow the rich to get richer while the rest of us get poorer. The billionaires are scared. And that’s how we know we’ve got ‘em.

Marisa Wright can be reached at marisadw@umich.edu.