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Billionaires for Higher Taxes: Gates Backs an FTT

David Callahan

Unlike his friend Warren Buffett, Bill Gates has generally not been outspoken about the need for higher taxes on the wealthy. While Gates's father, William Gates, Sr., famously campaigned to preserve the estate tax -- even writing a book with veteran activist Chuck Collins -- Gates himself has been reserved on this issue.

Now that may be changing. Last week, in a speech to the G20 summit, Gates threw his support behind a financial transaction tax -- saying that levying a small tax on trades of stocks and bonds could raise $48 billion a year to help the global poor. 

It's not nothing when America's richest man backs a tax that would fall heavily on Wall Street (although, granted, hit ordinary investors as well).

This is the second time that Gates has come out for higher taxes on the rich in the past year. During the 2010 election, he came out in favor of a ballot initiative in Washington State that would have raised the top state income tax rate for wealthy filers. 

Bill Gates is no big liberal, and his support for taxes has always been linked to a specific goal -- like reducing global poverty or improving Washington State's education system. In this sense, he speaks for many moderate wealthy Americans who don't have a problem with higher taxes as long as they believe that the money is being put to good use.

More broadly, Gates's views on ideology and capitalism are worth reflecting on. Gates once said that he liked Republicans because they want to make it easier for Americans to create wealth, but he frowned on how Republicans had no interest in making sure that this wealth was broadly shared in society. Meanwhile, Gates said he liked Democrats because they did have a commitment to shared prosperity, but he didn't like how Democrats seemed uninterested in fostering wealth creation. 

Herein lies a progressive formula for capturing the support of affluent America and many other moderate voters: Stake out a clear commitment to helping business create wealth, along with policies -- like an FTT -- that share that wealth.