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Op-Ed: Billionaires aren’t all alike. Michael Bloomberg is no Donald Trump

Michael Bloomberg may be a capitalist, but he wants to level the playing field.
(Michael Reynolds / EPA)

Elizabeth Warren put it this way: “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.” Bernie Sanders, too, has repeatedly attacked Michael R. Bloomberg for his wealth. To the saintly progressives on the Democratic left, one billionaire is as bad as another.

But whether or not you support Bloomberg, equating him to Donald Trump is absurd. In all the ways that matter, they are counter opposites.

Bloomberg operated a famously successful business. Trump’s companies went through serial defaults and bankruptcies.

Trump uses the White House to funnel government business to his private hotels. Bloomberg has proposed a tax on Wall Street trading, the source of his fortune.

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Bloomberg is a serious philanthropist, donating to a variety of causes that include gun control, healthcare and the environment. Trump contributes peanuts and settled a suit by New York state for misusing his personal foundation.

And here’s the most important difference: Bloomberg, a bookkeeper’s son, is self-made. Trump was staked to millions by his father, Fred Trump, and repeatedly bailed out by Daddy when he blew his wad.

That could furnish the coherent campaign story that Bloomberg has been missing. He should run as the candidate of the American dream.

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Sanders’ vision is that the system is rotten and needs a fundamental overhaul — reining in corporations, taxing wealth, getting rid of “billionaires.”

Bloomberg — when he is able to articulate it — has an alternative vision. He believes in capitalism and wants to make it more accessible. He did that in New York. While he was mayor, he initiated programs to encourage women- and minority-owned businesses, and over his tenure, the number of such firms certified to do business with the city grew tenfold.

His signature campaign planks now aim to remove unfair advantages for the rich without discouraging business.

One of these planks would end the carried interest exclusion — the loophole that gives a preferential tax rate to wealthy private equity and hedge funds.

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The Democratic establishment, led by Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, has long protected this entitlement. But it is, as the progressives say, socialism for the rich. Good riddance.

An even more telling Bloomberg pledge is to increase the inheritance tax and eliminate the bizarre exclusion for inherited capital gains. In the U.S. capital gains are magically erased at death. When heirs sell an asset, the purchase price, for tax purposes, is “stepped up” to its value at the time of death, which is often far above what the deceased paid for it. This is a huge loophole that protects private fortunes from one generation to the next.

It’s exactly what America shouldn’t be doing. You want opportunity. You want people to be able to earn fortunes. But inheriting isn’t “earning.”

Privileging the children of the rich is destructive to the essential premise of the American dream: that anyone can make it.

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You don’t hear words like “dream” from Bloomberg. He is a poor rhetorician, and if he hopes to have a chance at winning, he’d better improve.

Since the Great Recession, a generation has come of age more or less unaware that capitalism has delivered by far the greatest gains of any economic system. The basic premise of Adam Smith — that the pursuit of individual gain ultimately benefits society — is not self-evident to today’s voters, especially younger voters.

Bloomberg was asked in the Las Vegas debate if he deserved his fortune. He said, “Yes, I worked hard.” Weak answer. It was the chance to say that creating a company benefited not only himself, but his customers, his employees — and the tax base. He could have pointed out that without successful companies such as his, there would be no revenue to do the social things that he and the other candidates propose. It was the chance, moreover, to say that he wants to promote opportunity for future Bloombergs.

Being self-made remains the quintessential American story. And not being self-made has worked on Trump’s character in a negative way. Trump goes into overdrive to persuade people that he is the smartest, the richest, the guy whose inauguration was the best attended. He feels the sting of having been a rich kid — of not having earned his good fortune.

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He gets furious when people say that Russia helped him win — or point out that Hillary Clinton got more votes. It offends the ancient wound of having inherited an advantage. It informs his lack of empathy for immigrants — America’s original self-starters.

The voters need to hear Bloomberg articulate this difference. As in: “Trump was given everything and he is out to protect the haves. I started from scratch and want to enable others to succeed.”

The accusation that Bloomberg is another Trump is ludicrous when you look at his platform. He proposes to spend trillions on education, infrastructure, and redistribution to the working poor via the earned income tax credit.

He wants to hike Social Security benefits to low earners and raise taxes on high incomes. He wants to raise the corporate tax (which Trump reduced).

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That is all standard Democratic stuff. His rivals for the nomination, Sanders and Warren in particular, package such proposals with a divisive and accusatory message: America isn’t working, the system is rigged, corporations are to blame.

Bloomberg is uniquely placed to offer a competing vision.

Roger Lowenstein is a financial journalist and former staff writer for the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of, among other books, “Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist.” He has been a freelance contributor to Bloomberg News, though not in recent years.


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