It occurred to me not long ago that every time my family has gone out to eat with my brother-in-law’s family, I pay the tab. There are three ways to look at this phenomenon. The first is that I have substantially more wealth than he does, so I can better afford it. The second is that I choose to do so, so it’s my pleasure to pick up the bill.
The third is that he’s cheap and never reaches for the check, even though we all ate a meal together and his share of the bill is invariably greater than mine as he tends to imbibe in significantly greater quantities when it’s us, since he knows he won’t be the one paying for it. On his own, it’s burgers. With me, it’s filet or lobster.
I don’t expect anyone to feel badly for me. But do I owe him a free meal? It’s not that I can’t afford it. I can. Without breaking a sweat, I can provide him and his family with a delightful meal at a restaurant he would never go to otherwise. In my mind, it’s my pleasure to do so, though it would be nice if he tried, just once before I died, to pick up a tab. I wouldn’t let him, but it would be nice not to feel as if I’m just a meal ticket.
Who will stand up for the billionaires? They are filthy rich, disgustingly wealthy beyond all need. We could all stand a free meal on their tab, right Bernie?
Say Bill Gates was actually taxed $100 billion. We could end homelessness and provide safe drinking water to everyone in this country. Bill would still be a multibillionaire.
Our message: the billionaire class cannot have it all when so many have so little.
What’s particularly curious here is that the guy Bernie is going after is Bill Gates. He and Melinda have been extraordinarily generous with their wealth, often to causes that are either quite progressive, such as Melinda’s feminist funding, or people who are suffering from poverty and horrific conditions. They have been generous in helping others, have promised to give away most of their wealth and are wonderful global citizens.
But Bill Gates had the audacity to draw a line.
Bill Gates on a wealth tax:
“I’ve paid over $10 billion in taxes. I’ve paid more than anyone in taxes. If I had to pay $20 billion, it’s fine.”
“But when you say I should pay $100 billion, then I’m starting to do a little math over what I have left over.”
Say Gates would still have a net worth of $5 billion. Isn’t that enough? Is he really complaining that he couldn’t survive on that? How can he justify his selfishness when that $100 billion could be used for so many important things for society?
The New York Times offers an editorial explaining why the incentive for innovation argument for vast wealth doesn’t hold up.
The available evidence strongly suggests that taxation exerts a minor influence on innovation. Experts have an imperfect understanding of what drives innovation, but taxation isn’t in the same weight class as factors including education, research and a consistent legal system.
At the same time, they make the Willie Sutton argument:
The federal government needs a lot more money. Decades of episodic tax cuts have left the government deeply in debt: The Treasury is on pace to borrow more than $1 trillion during the current fiscal year to meet its obligations. The government will need still more money for critical investments in infrastructure, education and the social safety net.
If billionaires are where the money is, we need money and there won’t be any devastating harm to innovation from taking it, the calculations seem pretty straightforward. Bernie sees it. Liz Warren sees it. The New York Times sees it, as does every person who wants someone else to pay the dinner tab because they could really use a good meal and the other person can afford it. The argument for a wealth tax is obvious: they have money. We want it.
Who will stand up for the billionaires? Even if they earned it, from their labor plus good luck, to their passive investments plus good luck, to pure kismet of being a seminal heir to the fortune, is there not a point where enough is enough, where enough need for the groundlings must prevail over the relative handful of billionaires, estimated to be 607 at the moment, so we could easily take them in a fight.
While I have no complaints about the good life I enjoy, I’m no billionaire. It would surely be in my personal best interest to milk the Big B’s for their unfair wealth and apply it to the roads, the healthcare, the college tuition and my dinner tab. But then, it’s their money.
For better or worse, they “earned” it in the sense that they lawfully accumulated a vast amount of wealth by using the means society provided. We all try to do it. We all want to do it. Few of us did it as well as they did, and so they are far richer than we are. So now, we’re entitled to decide they have too much wealth and get to confiscate their wealth for our benefit?
Bill Gates doesn’t have to justify why we can’t take $100 billion from his pocket. It’s his money. Just as we have things that are ours, whether it’s our bank accounts, our homes, our iPhone, he has his wealth. We can tax the wealthy, just as we all get taxed to pay for the things government does for us, even if it doesn’t spend the money the way we individually might prefer or with the sense of thrift Bill Proxmire would demand, but we cannot simply confiscate the wealth of billionaires because they are richer than we feel they should be.
And when we’ve taken all we can from the billionaires, and realize that our lust for a free meal is unsated because as wealthy as the billionaires are, our enlightened self-interest in rationalizing why free things are good for us is far more vast, will we suddenly accept the notion that confiscation is wrong when they come for your house or car, because who needs an
Austin Healey Mercedes Benz when you can drive a Chevy, which will get you wherever you need to go just fine?
Willie Sutton was right, the reason to rob banks is because that’s where the money is. The reason to confiscate wealth from billionaires is because that’s where the money is. But Willie Sutton was a bank robber.