WASHINGTON — Though not known as a prolific Twitter user, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has taken to the platform to feud with the Biden administration over what he has called the president’s “misdirection” in arguing that higher taxes on wealthy people could curb inflation.
The brouhaha began late Friday afternoon, with a post on President Biden’s Twitter account. “You want to bring down inflation?” the message said. “Let’s make sure the wealthiest corporations pay their fair share.”
The Biden administration has argued that his ambitious, multitrillion-dollar social spending agenda, formerly known as Build Back Better, would fix some of the structural problems that plague the economy. Biden wants to pay for Build Back Better with higher taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations, which liberal economists believe would have the added benefit of stymieing inflation by reducing demand among the people with the greatest spending power.
Last year Build Back Better failed to pass the Senate because of opposition from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. But as the president’s tweet indicated, the White House still hopes that a slimmed-down proposal can find traction.
Many liberal economists agree that the investments are necessary and should be paid for by higher taxes: The White House is especially fond of touting 17 Nobel Prize-winning economists who argued in a letter last year that because Biden’s “agenda invests in long-term economic capacity and will enhance the ability of more Americans to participate productively in the economy, it will ease longer-term inflationary pressure.”
(Asked about the Bezos-Biden disagreement, the White House sent Yahoo News several press clips endorsing the president’s plan, including the letter from the 17 economists.)
Among the dissenters from Biden’s view is Bezos, whose net worth is estimated at $140 billion. Fresh from trolling Tesla founder and potential future Twitter owner Elon Musk, Bezos responded to Biden’s tweet from last Friday by musing that the message should be reported to the controversial new Department of Homeland Security board meant to monitor online disinformation.
“Raising corp taxes is fine to discuss,” Bezos wrote. “Taming inflation is critical to discuss. Mushing them together is just misdirection.”
Though he stepped away from Amazon last year, Bezos remains closely associated with the sprawling company he founded as an online bookstore in 1994. He was a favorite punching bag for the Trump administration, though less out of policy disagreements than a personal animus on Donald Trump’s part. Bezos owns the Washington Post, which investigated Trump and his administration. He is also much wealthier than Trump, who has always been highly attuned to the slightest gradations in status.
Bezos took up the argument again on Sunday morning, in a new message that suggested Build Back Better would have only contributed to inflationary pressure. “In fact, the administration tried hard to inject even more stimulus into an already over-heated, inflationary economy and only Manchin saved them from themselves,” he wrote. “Inflation is a regressive tax that most hurts the least affluent. Misdirection doesn’t help the country.”
The White House saw an opportunity, given the delight many progressives take in demonizing Bezos for his individual wealth, corporate practices and outsize personality. Last month workers at a New York City warehouse who were the first Amazon employees to successfully form a union were invited to the White House.
“I like you,” Biden told union organizer Christian Smalls. “You’re my kind of trouble.”
And so on Monday, deputy press secretary Andrew Bates offered what amounted to a White House counterpunch. “It doesn’t require a huge leap,” he said, “to figure out why one of the wealthiest individuals on Earth opposes an economic agenda for the middle class. It’s also unsurprising that this tweet comes after the president met with labor organizers, including Amazon employees.”
Bezos would not let the matter drop. “Look, a squirrel!” he wrote in a tweet about the Bates statement, using a meme some believe references attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “They understandably want to muddy the topic. They know inflation hurts the neediest the most,” his message said in part.
In a follow-up message, Bezos argued that if Build Back Better had passed, “inflation would be even higher than it is today, and inflation today is at a 40 year high.”
Conservatives suddenly had an unlikely hero in Bezos, while Biden received an endorsement (via tweet) from an arguably unlikely source: Harvard economist and former top White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers, who has been warning that the Biden administration’s spending would lead to inflation.
Though Summers had previously called President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package “the least responsible macroeconomic policy we’ve had in the last 40 years,” the blustery economist — who was President Barack Obama’s top economic adviser and, before that, a top Treasury official in the Clinton administration — now came to Biden’s defense.
Bezos was “mostly wrong,” Summers wrote, arguing that it was “perfectly reasonable to believe” that “we should raise taxes to reduce demand to contain inflation and that the increases should be as progressive as possible.” Among the thousands to share his message was Bates, the White House deputy press secretary.
In a subsequent phone interview with Yahoo News, Summers said that while taxing billionaires like Bezos would not affect their spending, tax increases on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans would “cause them to adjust their lifestyles” by reducing their income.
“Ultra-luxury items, like planes and Porsches, are showing strong demand,” Summers noted.
At the same time, he maintained that Biden’s accusations of “price gouging” were “preposterous” and that it would ultimately take new monetary policy to bring inflation rates down.
“The Fed is the most important determinant,” Summers told Yahoo News in reference to the Federal Reserve, which controls the interest rates at which people and institutions borrow money.
Conservatives who have criticized Biden for spending too much money too quickly readily embraced Bezos. Raising taxes on corporations, one former expert at the right-leaning Tax Foundation argued, would actually worsen inflation.