AUSTIN, Texas — It’s Elizabeth Warren’s catchy code for how little she’s asking of the rich: The Massachusetts senator said “two cents” no fewer than 16 times Tuesday night in pitching her wealth tax to a crowd of cheering Texans.
Warren’s message was that the superwealthy, those worth more than $50 million, would pay just pennies on the dollar — a 2 percent annual tax on assets — to fund the vast array of social programs she’s proposing, from universal child care to free college tuition. At her prompting, crowds recently have held up two fingers and chanted, “Two cents!” to express their support for the tax, and the programs it would pay for.
But there’s another way of looking at how this tax would impact the country’s wealthiest families: The 15 largest fortunes in country would be, on average, half their current size if the tax had been in place since 1982, according to new figures published by a pair of economists who helped Warren write her wealth tax proposal.
Instead of $97 billion, Microsoft founder Bill Gates would now have $36.4 billion, according to the figures. Rather than $44.9 billion, Walmart heiress Alice Walton would be sitting on $15 billion. Instead of $160 billion, Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos would have $86.8 billion.
Some economists, seizing on such numbers, say Warren’s tax could do more than just make the wealthy uncomfortable: It could erase great fortunes.
“This is not some small little tax,” said Lawrence Summers, former treasury secretary in the Clinton administration and past Harvard University president. “If it was successfully enforced — and there are questions about whether it would be — this would be an extremely burdensome tax on wealth.”
The dichotomy between Warren’s simple pitch for her platform and its potentially far-reaching impact reflects a certain duality in Warren’s message. She enthusiastically promises crowds she will bring “big, structural change” if elected president, and she revels in reports that she’s feared by the wealthy. But she also suggests that her plans would in fact require little sacrifice by the country’s rich.
Instead of pitching “revolution” like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., one of Warren’s most effective political skills is framing her ideas as well within the mainstream. But as she continues to rise in the polls, her plans for overhauling the way the country allocates wealth are attracting more scrutiny — and from detractors, more criticism.
Her populist pitch is largely centered on her wealth tax proposal, which would impose an annual 2 percent tax on wealth over $50 million and a 3 percent tax on wealth over a billion. The plan would raise about $2.75 trillion over 10 years, the campaign says.
The idea plays on the sentiment among many in both parties that the system has become tilted too far in favor of the rich and powerful, while stopping short of a revolutionary-style message that could alienate some voters.
“What she does well is put it in very plain terms,” said Austin resident Charlie Phelps, 42, after attending Warren’s 5,000-person campaign event here. “We’re talking about two cents. That’s all it is.”
Other Warren supporters, though, paused at the notion that the tax would have sheared some of the country’s great fortunes by half.
“Those numbers do make me think of it differently,” said Becca North, 43, another Austin resident, who was waiting in line for a photo with Warren. “I would want to hear from her again. This frames it differently.”
North said it did not necessarily change how she views Warren or her plans, but she did worry that they would make Warren’s wealth tax less palatable to others. “That just seems like a bigger deal. It seems like it would be less appealing to more people,” North said.
If Warren is the nominee, Republicans have signaled they would portray her platform as a socialist threat to ordinary people and the American system. Former senator Phil Gramm, R-Texas co-wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday arguing that Warren’s plans would endanger Americans’ retirement savings.
Warren could also confront criticism from Democratic rivals such as former vice president Joe Biden, whom she will face on the debate stage Thursday night, that her plans are too far-reaching and unrealistic.
Ultimately, Warren is betting that few Americans will be overly distraught at the prospect that titans like Bezos, Gates or the Walton family could have fewer billions at their disposal.
Warren’s campaign declined to comment on whether her wealth tax would reduce the underlying fortunes of the very rich, as some economists say.
“The wealthiest people need to pay their fair share so every person gets a chance to build a future, too,” said Saloni Sharma, a Warren spokeswoman.
In her public comments, Warren is careful to say that the wealth tax is not intended punish the rich. “Understand, this isn’t punitive — that’s not the point,” Warren said last month at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. Rather, she said, the wealthy benefited from taxpayer-funded benefits to make their fortunes and should repay society with a small percentage of assets.
“You made it big? Good for you!” she said. “You had a great idea, you worked hard … or you inherited well. But either way, great fortunes in this country were built using workers all of us helped pay to educate … You make it really big? Put a little back in so everybody else has a chance to make it.”
In their new paper, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California at Berkeley argue that under Warren’s plan the great fortunes would not be taken away, but would simply grow more slowly. Even though they singled out the top 15 fortunes, those wealthy Americans would see declines far greater than the typical wealthy taxpayer would experience, they said.
“Because it’s progressive, Warren’s wealth tax would slow wealth growth much more for the top 15 than for the very-rich-but-not-multi-billionaires,” Zucman said in an email.
He said that many of the 75,000 families who would face the tax own barely more than the cutoff of $50 million, so a significantly smaller proportion of their fortune would be subject to the tax. A person with $100 million, he said, would have an average wealth tax rate of 1 percent.
Still, for the rich to avoid seeing their fortunes erode, their assets would need to grow by more than the amount being taxed each year. Some economists say that is not as straightforward as Warren can make it seem.
For example, Warren frequently explains the tax by saying it is similar to a property tax, but one that is also intended to include “the yachts, the diamonds and the Rembrandts,” as she puts it.
Those types of assets do not necessarily increase in value each year, said Michael R. Strain, director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. A boat, even one that costs millions, typically loses significant value each season, for example, while real estate can grow unevenly or not at all.
That means that each year, the wealthy taxpayer could have their assets chipped away by Warren’s levy, he said.
“It is the tax-code equivalent of looting mansions,” Strain said. “If the asset is growing slower than the wealth tax is, then the asset will shrink.”