Does billionaire wealth need a haircut -- or an amputation?
Three ideas to start your week
Good morning, Inklings! (We’re going with this for now.) And hello, newcomers!
I hope you had good weekends. Even if you didn’t, at least you’re not having the Monday the former CEO of McDonald’s is. (This story calls to mind the company’s unaccountably come-hither slogan in the 1970s, “We do it all for you.”)
My weekend was filled with the making of origami boxes, which I highly recommend if you have young children and you’re aware of the advice from older parents that “it all goes by so fast” but you also need a way to occupy the hours. I practiced one of my new pandemic hobbies — cutting bangs. (My hair-cutting services will be available at a discount to Inklings post-pandemic.) There was masked scooting on a jetty protruding into the Upper New York Bay. There were omelet cupcakes that tasted better than they sound.
Tomorrow, The.Ink (a.k.a. I) will publish an interview with Noam Chomsky that I’m excited to share. This lion of the left will surprise you with what he thinks of Joe Biden, his gripe with Bernie Sanders, and his reaction to criticism he drew for signing the Harper’s letter. I’m also going to do a live chat, ask-me-anything style, with subscribers at 12 noon tomorrow. Details to come.
And if you haven’t signed up for the mailing list, consider it!
But for now, I just want to share a few ideas on my mind as the week gets started.
1. If you need more eros in your life, an erosive wealth tax is now on the table
Last week, Bernie Sanders introduced legislation called the Make Billionaires Pay Act, which would impose a 60 percent tax on the wealth gains of the richest Americans during the pandemic. It would supposedly raise a staggering $422 billion, which would be used to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses for Americans for a full year.
While the bill’s chances of becoming law are on par with my chances of winning an Olympic medal, I believe it represents a turning point that deserves more attention. Until now, even the most strident critics of plutocracy in America have stayed light-years away from an erosive wealth tax. Sanders’ proposal in the campaign, like that of his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren, would have taxed billionaire wealth at a rate below the typical rate of return that billionaires can count on. So those proposals would, at best, have slowed the pace at which billionaire fortunes grow. They didn’t even attempt to shrink those fortunes.
Sanders has been a key, if not the key, actor in changing the conversation about billionaires — and yanking open the Overton Window of acceptable political discussion. But even he has had to work himself up to this idea of wealth erosion. When I sat with him on a bench in an airport terminal in Des Moines in early 2019 and asked if he agreed with the statement by Dan Riffle, an adviser to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that “every billionaire is a policy failure,” Sanders was not keen to echo that statement. A few months later, he introduced his wealth tax, the highest bracket of which was an 8 percent tax on fortunes north of $10 billion. He said at the time, “I don’t think that billionaires should exist,” but he was candid that his tax proposal did not attempt to make that belief an economic reality: “This proposal does not eliminate billionaires, but it eliminates a lot of the wealth that billionaires have.”
Sanders’s new bill lifts the top rate by more than seven times — from 8 percent to 60 percent — albeit for a one-time pandemic tax. Yet this is a qualitative, and not just a quantitative, change. I asked the brilliant economist Gabriel Zucman, who has advised both Warren and Sanders on wealth taxes, to explain the significance of this shift.
“All the proposals made so far to tax wealth would have merely slowed the growth of wealth at the top,” Zucman, the co-author of “The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay,” told me. “This proposal would erode top-end wealth, at least temporarily. In essence this is saying: the fantastic wealth gains made by billionaires during the pandemic are useless from a social perspective; this extra wealth would be much better used for health care and other essential public services that benefit society at large.”
In short, Bernie Sanders has now put into mainstream discussion the idea that the wealth of billionaires needs amputation, not barbering.
2. If American democracy is lost, it will be lost in the mail
The shrewdest way to hijack a society is in the details. Donald Trump appears to be purchasing a dictatorial insurance policy against defeat by sabotaging the United States Postal Service. These stories need more notice:
From The Washington Post:
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy unveiled a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s mail service, displacing the two top executives overseeing day-to-day operations, according to a reorganization memo released Friday. The shake-up came as congressional Democrats called for an investigation of DeJoy and the cost-cutting measures that have slowed mail delivery and ensnared ballots in recent primary elections.
From The American Prospect:
The Postal Service has informed states that they’ll need to pay first-class 55-cent postage to mail ballots to voters, rather than the normal 20-cent bulk rate. That nearly triples the per-ballot cost at a time when tens of millions more will be delivered.
[A]round the time Trump started musing about delaying the election last week, aides and outside advisers began scrambling to ponder possible executive actions he could take to curb mail-in voting — everything from directing the postal service to not deliver certain ballots to stopping local officials from counting them after Election Day.
3. My vice-presidential pick prediction
I wouldn’t be fulfilling my obligations to you if I didn’t offer my VP selection guess.
Now, I don’t have a person to offer. I have a spectrum that I’ve invented, and a guess about where Biden’s selection will fall.
The spectrum runs from the timkainest choice on one end (a 1) to the sarahpalinest choice on the other (a 10). The timkainest choice is the safe, prudent, uninspiring, do-no-harm, arouse-absolutely-no-one choice. The sarahpalinest choice is the larky, risky, and utterly dangerous choice.
I confidently predict Biden’s choice will be a 3.
Photo by Mandel Ngan/Getty