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The candidates were divided on whether to tax the rich or expand wealth. This was at the heart of the debate, but it missed central points

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SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN With all due deference to the fact that this is a presidential debate, Donald Trump got punked. He has conducted foreign policy since day one, born out of a very fragile ego.

MARC STEINER Kamala Harris found her street thing. She did step up on that line. It was probably one of the best lines of the evening. I’m Marc Steiner here, welcome to The Real News. Good to have you all with us and clearly, we’re going to talk about last night’s debate. What happened in last night’s debate? We’re going to take a look at that.

My first impression was, if they were in Atlanta, where some would call the black capital of the United States, and you had one black reporter, where were the rest? It seemed like that was glaring to me, it was glaring to some other people who I saw tweeting in the Twitter universe last night. That did strike me. But also, the audiological divide showed through last night.

From Warren and Booker, over taxing wealth or building wealth, foreign policy, snuck through with the imaginary phone calls, to Sanders clarity about certain foreign policy issues, and Tulsi pushing really hard on non-involvement in other nations. Where did it leave us, and what does it say about the democratic party?

Let me welcome our panel. We have political commentator Kim Brown, back with us here on The Real News. Kim, always good to have you on The Real News. We need to have you more on The Real News. Good to have you here.

KIM BROWN Thank you.

MARC STEINER Our other two folks both write for Jacobin. We have Luke Savage who wrote a piece this morning on Jacobin on the debate last night and Branko Marcetic who is here for Jacobin as well as being an investigative reporter for In These Times.

Let us begin this way. Let’s take a look at this first piece. This was the back and forth between Warren and Booker. And even though it highlights a divide around Neo liberal versus more radical politics in terms of taxing the wealth, it also showed something else. Let’s look at this first.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN We want to build an America that works for the people, not one that just works for rich folks. I have proposed a two cent wealth tax, that is a tax for everybody who has more than $50 billion in assets.

Your first 50 billion is free and clear, but your 50 billions and first dollar, you’ve got to pitch in two cents and when you hit $1 billion, you’ve got to pitch in a few pennies more. So when you make it big, when you make it really big, when you make a top one 10th of 1% big, pitch in 2 cents, so everybody else gets a chance to make it. Here’s the thing, that’s something that Democrats care about.

SEN. CORY BOOKER I don’t agree with the wealth tax that way that Elizabeth Warren puts it. I agree that we need to raise the estate tax. We need to tax capital gains as ordinary income. Real strategies will increase revenue.

When I stood in church recently and asked folks in a black church, how many people here want to be entrepreneurs? Half the church raised their hands.

If we as a country don’t start, if we have a party don’t start talking not just about how to tax wealth, but to have give more people opportunities to create wealth, to grow businesses, to have their American dream. Because we need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, $15 an hour.

The people in communities I frequent, they’re not aspirations for their lives is not just to have those fair wages. They want to have an economy that provides not just equalities in wealth but they want to have equalities and opportunity and that’s what our party has to be about as well.

MARC STEINER So a couple of ways to look at this particular piece. You can look at it in terms of the difference in terms of the economy and taxing wealth and that’s clearly one issue that we can look at. But I’m going to go there next. I want to go somewhere else first for this because I think that there’s a subtext to a book or the idea that many people have not read thought through and you look at that in the context of some of the quotes that we had from both Booker and Harris last night.

When he was talking about growing wealth, people who look at that I think sometimes as a kind of a near liberal idea. But he was also speaking I think in some ways to the desires in a lot of the black and Latino worlds, which is we are left out of the economic pie in America.

If you go to a church, it’s true, I’ve seen it before dozens of times. People aren’t this whole entrepreneurial thing, whether it’s a bogus in terms of its reality, what it can do, but it’s real in terms

of people’s desires.

I think he was speaking to something deeper there to pull out a vote. Look at this for a moment, if you couple that with Kamala Harris saying the larger issue is that for too long, I think candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the democratic party and I’ve overlooked those constituencies and they show up when it’s close to election time and show up in a black church and want to get a vote for, but just haven’t been there before. Or bookers saying, I have a lifetime of experience with black voters. I’ve been one since I was 18, nobody on this stage should need the focus group to hear from the African American voters, black voters are pissed off.

They’re pissed off because the only time politicians and come is when they’re looking for their vote. When you look at that in that context, let’s talk a bit about that. I think that was part of the subtext of this along with Buttigieg feeling really badly in the black community.

You think there’s something to that or am I making something that’s not there? Who wants to begin Branko? Why don’t you start?

BRANKO MARCETIC Yeah, I’ll be honest, I sort of read it as typical Democrat triangulation. I do think the point about needing to, not just talking about the wealth tax, but what you’re going to do with that wealth tax is well taken.

You look at some of the stuff that Warren and Sanders are a proposing, free college, universal health care, that kind of thing. That would have a staggering positive effect on African American communities and other minority communities in the US.

When I heard the Booker thing of thing about making it easy for budding entrepreneurs to rise up, it kind of reminded me of the Obama Administration, which is obviously supported and kept funneling this big bailout money to banks that had caused the financial crisis.

Then when it came time to giving the taxpayers a bailout, they elected to provide a fraction of that humongous bailout money that they went to the banks, a fraction of it towards small businesses. That was sort of the mainstream bailout. That’s all well and good to support small businesses, but at the same time there were people, there were underwater homeowners and people struggling with unemployment and all manner of other things. To me that Booker statement kind of really called back to that, which is, we don’t want to sound like we’re socialists or anything, we don’t want to be giving money away to the masses, to the rabble, but we’ll do this sort of kind of quasi Reaganite them or we’ll give it to small businesses and entrepreneurs and then that’ll kind of filter down to everyone else.

MARC STEINER Kim, what is your take on this?

KIM BROWN Well, there is a number of things that I heard last night that I get were Senators Booker and Warren were trying to go, but they were missing some very big points. In their debate about taxing the top one 10th of 1% of income earners, I didn’t hear anything about taxing corporations who are paying zero amounts in taxes, especially given the fact that it was announced just this week that Amazon netted about $11 billion in profit of which they will owe no federal taxes for.

I think while it is important to tax people, honors individual wealth owners, these corporations are getting away with murder. I do appreciate Elizabeth Warren making a point, but not specifically singling out Amazon. She said, these corporations take advantage or are able to use, roads that are funded by tax payers. They use the police and fire services that are funded by taxpayers, but they are not paying their equal share. To get back to your point Mark, what you mentioned about Cory Booker, I’m talking about black and brown entrepreneurs.

The biggest demographic that starts businesses in this country every single year is black women. Conversely, most of those businesses do not make it to the second year because of a couple of things. But primarily due to lack of access to capital to keep the businesses going or to even make sure that everything that goes along with running your own business that you need those funds and those resources on hand.

Unfortunately, most African American business owners, small business owners, don’t have access to that, which is why the businesses don’t succeed. That’s a point that was not made by Senator Booker, which is also important. Thirdly, when you get back to the $15 minimum wage.


KIM BROWN Everybody knows if you live in a major city or in proximity to a major city on the East or West coast. Tell me what $15 an hour is going to do for you, even if you work 40, 50 hours a week.

MARC STEINER Not a whole lot.

KIM BROWN Exactly, that’s not a living wage either. There were these glaring blind spots that I saw from the democratic candidates last night. It’s like, okay, well you want to talk to me about taxing the top one 10th of 1% but you don’t say anything about Amazon.

MARC STEINER That’s some critical points. I think a lot of things as things went under the radar, we’re not really raised like this, and Luke, let me bring you in here. There was a quote that you had from your article that I want to share with our, viewers because I think it also tags on and goes to the heart of something of what we’re talking about here. Your quote in the Jacobin piece you wrote was “Healthcare policy, the most important issue for voters in 2018 midterms according to exit polls, got only a brief hearing in the first hour, but we did thankfully get to find out what Andrew Yang would say to Vladimir Putin doing an entirely and imaginary phone call.”

That as a great line. I love that line. I think it ties into, in some senses of the lack of substance inside these debates.

LUKE SAVAGE Yeah, very much so. Part of that is a function of there just being too many people on the stage at this point. I think having so many people on the stage can create the illusion of a kind of ideological diversity that isn’t there and then paradoxically can actually paper over or be misleading about some of the ideological divides. They’re more concrete and real.

Just quickly to go back to the exchange between Warren and book Booker.

MARC STEINER Yes please.

LUKE SAVAGE My reading, I guess I have two comments on that. The first is I think I share Bronco’s reading of Booker kind of invoking the rhetoric of aspiration. It sounds like very typical kind of 1990s style democratic rhetoric to me. But I thought what was more striking was also that he was contrasting with, and I think I mentioned this in my piece, with the wealth tax and it’s kind of antithetical to the idea of a two cent wealth tax because he begins by saying, I don’t agree with that.

The implication there is that there is a choice to be made between economic growth and taxing the wealthy, which I think is a deeply ideological view of how economic growth works and how taxation works.

To go back to your initial question about things that were kind of missing from the debate, there’s actually another option on the table when it comes to wealth taxes, which is the approach that Sanders wants to take. If you notice how Warren, as she does during her stump speech, leads with the modesty of her proposal. It’s only a 2% tax or two cent tax and we’re just asking the exorbitantly wealthy to chip in.

If you’d watch the debate last night, you were a casual viewer, you’d have the impression that is kind of the outer limits of the debate on taxation and inequality in the democratic party.

Sanders has actually come out and said he doesn’t think billionaires should exist. His tax plan is much steeper. It’s much more progressive in the sense of being a progressive tax. The brackets go up much higher and they begin earlier. I think Warren’s begins around 50 million and Sanders begins around 32 million, something like that. Sanders has made clear that the goal of his tax plan is actually to take away wealth from billionaires. Not to get them to, as Warren frames, that kind of hardworking people who’ve earned their wealth to chip in a little bit more.

Again, that’s partly a function of there just being too many people on, on stage in a debate like this. I think there are also some issues with kind of the moderation and who got to speak to which question and also the overriding focus on issues that I think are less important perhaps than something like healthcare, which is you said barely got to mention in this debate. Just a very quick segment.

MARC STEINER Yeah, it barely got to mention. I don’t want to get stuck on this point that I raised earlier though. I think it also speaks to people trying to wrestle with how to get to a broader message to bring people in into following the Democrats and to kind of broaden their base. That’s the real question over this kind of new liberal left divide that I really want to jump into. I think there’s a really important piece, but I’m going to end that here for this moment. We’re going to come back in just a minute with our three guests and really tackle this issue of how the divide happened last night in this debate between right and left and what that meant. You want to check that one out too.

I’m Marc Steiner here for the Real News Network.

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Branko Marcetic

Branko Marcetic is an editorial assistant at Jacobin. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

Kim Brown

Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.

Luke Savage

Luke Savage is a staff writer at Jacobin Magazine.