Ernie Neve, CPA
July 10, 2019
Showtime's hit series Billions invites us into the gilded life of Bobby "Axe" Axelrod, a working-class kid from Yonkers who makes his billions running a hedge fund. The camera teases us almost erotically with the spoils of his success: the $63 million Hamptons house he buys on a whim, the his-and-hers private jets he and his wife take when just one jet isn't enough, and the helicopter that drops his sons off at Little League practice. Axe is a guy who loves every dime he spends, and he isn't afraid to let us watch him spend it.
Of course, the full story is a little darker. (We're talking Showtime, not the Hallmark Channel.) Axe is so shady you could throw a picnic under him. His portfolio strategies include bagmen, blackmail, and bribery (and those are just the ones that start with "B"). His plots and schemes are so deep and layered they could teach philosophy. Axe gives millions in charity to museums and 911 first responders. But behind the scenes, he's evidence of Balzac's epigraph that behind every great fortune, there's a great crime.
Axe has his fingers in lots of different pies. (Note to self: don't eat the pie.) He makes plenty of enemies, wheeling and dealing his way through four seasons of Billions. But there's a new threat lurking on his horizon, and it's the sort of thing Bobby should spot from miles away. We're talking about politicians looking to raise revenue without targeting the actual masses of voters who get them elected. How do they do that? They skip "income" entirely and head straight to net worth.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is the highest-profile legislator floating this sort of wealth tax. Her "Ultra-Millionaire tax" takes 2% of their assets above $50 million and 3% over a billion. Warren estimates her plan would raise $2.75 trillion over 10 years. Best of all, it hits just 75,000 registered voters. (Sadly for Warren, they're also the registered voters with the most money to hire lobbyists to fight back.)
Of course, it's easy to propose that sort of flashy new tax. It's harder to collect it. Who wants to fill out a form telling the IRS everything they own? (Oh, did I forget that second Swiss bank account?) What price do you use for assets that fluctuate, like stocks? What about illiquid assets like real estate, closely-held businesses, and art? How would Axe value his yacht, his cars, and his motorcycles? And who's going to pay for the auditors to make sure he does the math right on his wealth tax return?
As for the tax itself, three percent might not sound like much. But when you're a billionaire, it adds up fast, especially if you're getting mugged for it every year. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has $158 billion, which would make his tax $4.74 billion. Stroking that check would have to hurt, even for him!
Warren isn't the only high-profile American who says we should tax the rich like we mean it. Last month, a group of card-carrying plutocrats including Abigail Disney, Facebook founder Chris Hughes, and Hyatt heiress Liesel Pritzker Simmons signed an open letter urging every 2020 presidential candidate to back Warren's plan. And polling shows that a surprising 60% of voters support it. (We're guessing the other 40% think someday they'll be that rich, too.)
Warren's wealth tax isn't going anywhere soon. It might not even be constitutional. But it's starting a conversation, at a time when Washington is looking harder than usual for sneaky new ways to pay the bills. So, while it may not be on Bobby Axelrod's radar, it's on ours. We'll let you know when it's time to start hiding your helicopter and pawning your jets!