Warren and Sanders: A Wealth Tax Is Needed to Address Staggering Inequality

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2020 progressive front-runners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren pushed for a wealth tax at the fourth Democratic debate Tuesday night. We speak with senior contributor at The Intercept, Mehdi Hasan, who hosts their “Deconstructed” podcast, and David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. He is the founder and editor of DCReport.org.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, but, David Cay Johnston, on one issue, she was pretty specific: on her wealth tax. She zeroed in on that and, interestingly, got a lot of pushback from Andrew Yang, who pointed to the fact that European governments have tried a wealth tax, and, little by little, each of them, or most of them, have repealed that wealth tax. Could you talk about the wealth tax? One, is it viable? Or is it even constitutional?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, it’s certainly constitutional. The original tax in this country was a wealth tax. It was a national property tax. The problem is that very, very wealthy people don’t have their wealth in easily measured forms like stock portfolios. So, lots of people will be able to easily evade a wealth tax.

The idea that we’re not properly taxing people at the top is absolutely spot-on correct. So one of the first things the Democrats should have been saying is, “When you die, we are not going to let you give away your entire fortune to your favorite charity and pay no tax. We’re going to tax that money when you die, or a significant portion of it.” And so, I think Yang, on that point, is correct. But, on the other hand, Bernie Sanders and especially Elizabeth Warren are exactly right. We are not taxing people at the top properly. We have cut the tax rate on people at the very top by more than half in the last 60 years, while for people in the bottom 90% we’ve raised their taxes. That’s crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to —

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: And as a result — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to CNN host Erin Burnett questioning Senator Bernie Sanders on this.

ERIN BURNETT: Senator Sanders, when you introduced your wealth tax, which would tax the assets of the wealthiest Americans, you said — quoting you, Senator — “Billionaires should not exist.” Is the goal of your plan to tax billionaires out of existence?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: When you have a half a million Americans sleeping out on the street today, when you have 87 people — 87 million people uninsured or underinsured, when you have hundreds of thousands of kids who cannot afford to go to college and millions struggling with the oppressive burden of student debt, and then you also have three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society, that is a moral and economic outrage. And the truth is, we cannot afford to continue this level of income and wealth inequality. And we cannot afford a billionaire class whose greed and corruption has been at war with the working families of this country for 45 years. So, if you’re asking me, do I think we should demand that the wealthy start paying — the wealthiest, top one-tenth of 1%, start paying their fair share of taxes, so we can create a nation and a government that works for all of us, yes, that’s exactly what I believe.

ERIN BURNETT: Thank you, Senator. Mr. Steyer, you are the lone billionaire on this stage. What’s your plan for closing the income gap?

TOM STEYER: Well, first of all, let me say this: Senator Sanders is right. There have been 40 years where corporations have bought this government, and those 40 years have meant a 40-year attack on the rights of working people, and specifically on organized labor. And the results are as shameful as Senator Sanders says, both in terms of assets and in terms of income. It’s absolutely wrong, and it’s absolutely undemocratic and unfair. I was one of the first people on this stage to propose a wealth tax. I would undo every Republican tax cut for rich people and major corporations.

But there’s something else going on here that is absolutely shameful, and that’s the way the money gets split up in terms of earnings. As a result of taking away the rights of working people and organized labor, people haven’t had a raise — 90% of Americans have not had a raise for 40 years. If you took the minimum wage from 1980 and just adjusted it for inflation, you’d get 11 bucks. It’s seven and a quarter. If you included the productivity gains of American workers, it would be over 20 bucks. There’s something wrong here, and that is that the corporations have bought our government. Our government has failed. That’s why I’m running for president, because we’re not going to get any of the policies that everybody on this stage wants — healthcare, education, Green New Deal or a living wage —

ERIN BURNETT: Thank you, Mr. Steyer.

TOM STEYER: — unless we break the power of these corporations.

ERIN BURNETT: Thank you, Mr. Steyer. Vice President Biden, you have warned against demonizing rich people. Do you believe that Senator Sanders’ and Senator Warren’s wealth tax plans do that?

JOE BIDEN: No. Look, I — demonizing wealthy people — what I talked about is how you get things done. And the way to get things done is take a look at the tax code right now. The idea — we have to start rewarding work, not just wealth. I would eliminate the capital gains tax, that in — I would raise the capital gains tax to the highest rate of 39.5%. I would double it, because, guess what. Why in God’s name should someone who’s clipping coupons in the stock market make — in fact, pay a lower tax rate than someone who, in fact, is, like I said, a schoolteacher and a firefighter? It’s ridiculous. And they pay a lower tax.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Vice President Joe Biden and, before him, Tom Steyer, who has — this is his first debate. Mehdi Hasan, a quick comment?

MEHDI HASAN: It was amusing to see the lone billionaire on stage saying Bernie Sanders is right about billionaires.

And I would just say this very quickly to my good friend David Cay Johnston, I get where he’s coming from on the kind of Democratic Party messaging when it comes to things like income inequality and taxes and wealth. I do think, though, that Warren and Sanders were pretty clear. I think Warren is always very clear when she talks about her wealth tax, about sticking two cents on every extra dollar above the 50 millionth dollar. And I thought she had a very good line last night where she allied herself with Bernie Sanders — they’ve still got this nonaggression pact — where she said, “Bernie and I, we stand for a wealth tax, and I don’t understand why other people on this stage are more interested in protecting billionaires than investing in entire generations of Americans.” I thought that was a very strong line. And I thought it was interesting how she put herself and Bernie separate to the other 10 on stage, which annoyed Amy Klobuchar so much. And anything that annoys Amy Klobuchar is surely a good thing.

AMY GOODMAN: And right before we go, David Cay Johnston, you’re a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Could you explain Joe Biden’s comments on stockbrokers clipping coupons?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, in this country, if you own capital, your tax rate is much lower if you’re in the top tier of Americans — and that’s where you are if you own much capital — than if you’re a working person. And he’s exactly right that we are overtaxing work and we are undertaxing capital. And we absolutely need to tax these billionaires, many of whom don’t just not pay taxes. Some of them literally turn a profit off the income tax system because of what are called deferral rules. And I’ll have a book out in a little over a year proposing a whole new system that puts an end to that and makes everybody pay their taxes the same way workers do.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then, when we come back, Medicare for All. We have a doctor in the house, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler. We’re talking to Mehdi Hasan, David Cay Johnston, Kate Aronoff. And we’re also going to speak with an immigrant rights leader about what wasn’t talked about. Stay with us.

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