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Elizabeth Warren's real 'beef with billionaires'


Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. A record 12 presidential hopefuls are participating in the debate hosted by CNN and The New York Times.

Win McNamee | Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren may have a new slogan: "Where's the beef?"

During Tuesday's Democratic debate, Warren had a quick response to a statement from Beto O'Rourke. The former Texas congressman said Warren was being "punitive" of the wealthy in her tax plan and rhetoric.

"I'm really shocked at the notion that anyone things I'm punitive," she said. "Look I don't have a beef with billionaires."

Warren then proceeded to explain her beef with billionaires – that they owe much of their success to the rest of America and need to hand over more of their accumulated fortunes to the Internal Revenue Service.

"My problem is you made a fortune in America – you had a great idea, you got out there and worked for it – good for you," she said. "But you built that fortune in America, I guarantee, you built it in part using workers all of us helped educate. You built it getting your goods to market on roads and bridges all of us helped pay for. You built it, at least in part, protected by police and firefighters all of us help pay the salaries for."

She added that her wealth tax of 2% on wealth over $50 million and 3% on wealth over $1 billion was a small price for the super rich to pay for lifting up the rest of America.

The 1%, she said just has to pitch in "two cents so every other kid in America has a chance to make it."

Aside from launching countless beef memes on social media, Warren's comments laid bare the division in the Democratic party over how to tax the wealthy. O'Rourke, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar want modest increases or changes in income tax rates, essentially preserving the basic tax code.

Warren, by contrast, wants to overhaul the tax system with a wealth tax that would take $200 billion a year from the rich by imposing an annual tax on accumulated wealth rather than income. The old system of taxing income is no longer working, she argued, as the wealthy pile up ever more wealth without paying taxes on their asset gains. Her real beef, it seems, is not so much with billionaires but with the tax system that gives preferential treatment – through the lower-capital gains tax and other provisions – to entrepreneurs, executives and investors who make money from money rather than wages.

"Taxing income is not going to get you where you need to be the way taxing wealth does," Warren said. "The rich are not like you and me. The really, really billionaires (sic) are making their money off their accumulated wealth, and it just keeps growing. We need a wealth tax in order to make investments in the next generation."

So far there is broad public support for Warren's wealth tax plan. Polls show that at least 60% of Americans support a tax on wealth, which may not be surprising since only about 75,000 families in the U.S. have enough wealth to be subject to Warren's wealth tax. And there is no denying that the wealth of the wealthy has soared over the past decade, as many Americans have struggled with modest wage gains.

America's billionaires had a collective net worth of about $3 trillion in 2019, more than doubling over the past decade, according to Forbes.

The question for Democrats and voters heading into the spring will be just how much the wealthy and those billionaires should pay – and how they should pay it.


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