When billionaires attack: Warren’s tax plan spurs a Fortune 500 freakout

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mass.,at the Capitol in 2017. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken.
Astrid Riecken
Sen. Elizabeth Warren talked on her mobile phone at the Capitol. Her proposed wealth tax has not been particularly popular with the super wealthy.

This Halloween, the scariest costume for trick-or-treating on the Upper East Side is a jewel-tone cardigan over a black scoop-neck.

Billionaires beware: Elizabeth Warren is coming for your candy.

The Massachusetts senator’s ascent to the top of the Democratic primary field has apparently sent shivers down several gilded spines. It takes a lot to make someone with billions in the bank worry, but Warren’s plan to tax the wealth of the very wealthy would take 2 percent off any fortune worth over $50 million, and 3 points on anything over $1 billion.


If you’re Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor (estimated net worth per Forbes: $51.4 billion) — that’s … hang on let’s just run a few quick calculations, hmm, carry the billion . . . well, it’s a lot. About a billion and a half dollars, actually.

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That’s enough, reportedly, to buy the world’s second-most expensive yacht. But it only costs a few hundred million dollars to run for president. So what else is a poor, poor, rich, rich guy to do? He’s ripping himself off if he doesn’t run! And so Bloomberg has been talking to allies about running if former vice president Joe Biden throws in the towel, according to a report from CNBC.

Now, you might be old enough to remember when Bloomberg said he wouldn’t run. That was way back in March, when he announced that he would instead focus on climate change and gun violence initiatives. Terrific! Those are critically important problems, and someone very influential and rich who throws his time and money behind solving them could be nothing short of heroic, and Bloomberg has done great work on both.

But the presidential race isn’t shaping up the way Bloomberg apparently expected. Biden’s struggle to pull away from Warren, CNBC’s sources said, was causing him to rethink his decision not to run.

The primary, meanwhile, has become downright hostile to billionaires. One of the defining issues has been the notion that allowing a handful of people to amass unfathomable fortunes is a regulatory and policy failure.


That’s enough to hurt a billionaire’s feelings. All they really want is to keep adding to their vast, profane fortunes and be universally beloved at the same time. Is that too much to ask?

Whatever their stated reasons for fantasizing about the presidency, it’s a curious coincidence that so many of these guys were ready to run when people started seriously talking about a wealth tax.

Voters already have chased off former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz ($4.2 billion); Tom Steyer ($1.6 billion, barely enough for that yacht) probably isn’t far behind, though he’s at least keeping some discussion of climate change alive. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ($70 billion) was just starting to signal a run when his nightmare company’s exploits made him a political pariah; now he grouses about Warren in private.

Bloomberg, who in January derided Warren’s wealth tax plan as Venezuelan, would probably fare somewhat better than this crew. For one thing, he’s actually been elected to public office before. But all of these extremely rich guys appear to share the same strange conviction that voters are desperate for: a very rich and powerful outsider to run for president.

We just tried that. How’s it going so far?


“No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Even the billionaire doesn’t want to protect billionaires,” Amy Klobuchar said during the recent Democratic debate, referencing Steyer.

“We just have different approaches,” said Klobuchar, whose approach has earned her a polling average below 2 percent so far. “Your idea is not the only idea.”

No, but Warren’s does happen to be the best idea — one that directly addresses the root of the problem. The wealthiest people in America now pay total taxes at a rate that is lower than the working class, according to new research by University of California, Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. While decades of tax cuts and policy changes have benefited the wealthiest Americans, who make huge sums of money through investment income, wages have barely risen since the 1970s.

The result is the staggering inequality that has come to define American life. A tax like the one Warren is proposing — which Saez and Zucman developed — is the simplest way to begin to close that wealth gap. It doesn’t tip the playing field toward poor and middle class people; it just slightly reduces the angle at which it’s tilted toward the very, very rich.

Such a plan will be hard to administer, critics say. Won’t the super wealthy skirt the new law (or outright cheat) by hiding assets or using other tricks? They can try; they already do. But strong enforcement, which Warren is also proposing, would help. Besides, people continue to break all manner of existing laws, tax and otherwise. Should grand larceny be legal because people are just going to attempt it, anyway?

A handful of men who have amassed incredible wealth at a time of gruesome inequality seem awfully scared of it. That’s how you know it’ll work.

Nestor Ramos can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.