THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW
Stanley Druckenmiller: How Washington Really Redistributes Income
By JAMES FREEMAN CONNECT
Stan Druckenmiller makes an unlikely class warrior. He's a member of the 1%—make that the 0.001%—one of the most successful money managers of all time, and 60 years old to boot. But lately he has been touring college campuses promoting a message of income redistribution you don't hear out of Washington. It's how federal entitlements like Medicare and Social Security are letting Mr. Druckenmiller's generation rip off all those doting Barack Obama voters in Generation X, Y and Z.
"I have been shocked at the reception. I had planned to only visit Bowdoin, " his alma mater in Maine, he says. But he has since been invited to multiple campuses, and even the kids at Stanford and Berkeley have welcomed his theme of generational theft. Harlem Children's Zone President Geoffrey Canada and former Federal Reserve Governor Kevin Warsh have joined him at stops along the tour.
Mr. Druckenmiller describes the reaction of students: "The biggest question I got was, 'How do we start a movement?' And my answer was 'I'm a 60-year-old washed-up money manager. I don't know how to start a movement. That's your job. But we did it in Vietnam without Twitter and without Facebook and without any social media. That's your job.' But the enthusiasm—they get it."
Even at Berkeley, he says, "they got it. There is tremendous energy in the room and of course they understand it. I'd say it's a combination of appalled but motivated. That's the response I've been getting, and it's been overwhelming."
Movement or no, this is a good week to check in with Mr. Druckenmiller, as President Obama won the budget battle without policy concessions to break the federal debt limit and continue borrowing beyond $17 trillion. I last spoke to the Pittsburgh native and father of three daughters during the 2011 debt-limit brawl, and he created a stir by supporting entitlement changes as a condition of raising the debt cap.
This was not the Wall Street consensus. He also said that a "technical default," in which the government is a week or two late in making payments on its debt, would be "horrible" but not "the end of the world" if it produced reforms that put U.S. finances on a sounder footing.
"Some characters in the administration have mischaracterized my view," he says now, in the conference room of his office high above midtown Manhattan. Then as now, he argues that major reform to protect future generations would be worth a short period of market turbulence.
"If there's something really big on the other side in terms of entitlement reform, it's worth using the debt limit. And God forbid even if you go a day or two over it in terms of interest payments," he says, the country would be better off "if and only if you got big, big progress on a long-term problem." Contemplating the recent Beltway debacle, he adds, "the problem with what we just went through is there was no big thing on the other side."
Not that Mr. Druckenmiller endorsed the most recent Republican strategy. "I thought tying ObamaCare to the debt ceiling was nutty," he says, and I can confirm that he was saying so for weeks before the denouement.
But he adds that "I did not think it would be nutty to tie entitlements to the debt ceiling because there's a massive long-term problem. And this president, despite what he says, has shown time and time again that he needs a gun at his head to negotiate in good faith. All this talk about, 'I won't negotiate with a gun at my head.' OK, you've been president for five years."
His voice rising now, Mr. Druckenmiller pounds his fist on the conference table. "Show me, President Obama, when the period was when you initiated budget discussions without a gun at your head."
Which brings him back to his thieving generation. For three decades until 2010, Mr. Druckenmiller ran the hedge fund he founded, Duquesne Capital. Now retired from managing other people's money, he looks after his own assets, which Forbes magazine recently estimated at $2.9 billion. And he wonders why in five years the massively indebted U.S. government will begin sending him a Social Security check for $3,500 each month. Because he earned it?
"I didn't earn it," he responds, while pointing to a bar chart that is part of his college presentation. Drawing on research by Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff, it shows the generational wealth transfer that benefits oldsters at the expense of the young.
While many seniors believe they are simply drawing out the "savings" they were forced to deposit into Social Security and Medicare, they are actually drawing out much more, especially relative to later generations. That's because politicians have voted to award the seniors ever more generous benefits. As a result, while today's 65-year-olds will receive on average net lifetime benefits of $327,400, children born now will suffer net lifetime losses of $420,600 as they struggle to pay the bills of aging Americans.
One of the great ironies of the Obama presidency is that it has been a disaster for the young people who form the core of his political coalition. High unemployment is paired with exploding debt that they will have to finance whenever they eventually find jobs.
Are the kids finally figuring out that the Obama economy is a lousy deal for them? "No, I don't sense that," says Mr. Druckenmiller, who is a registered independent. "But one of my points is neither party should own your vote. And once they know they own your vote, you're not going to get any action on this particular issue."
When the former money manager visited Stanford University, the audience included older folks as well as students. Some of the oldsters questioned why many of his dire forecasts assume that federal tax collections will stay at their traditional 18.5% of GDP. They asked why taxes should not rise to fulfill the promises already made.
Mr. Druckenmiller's response: "Oh, so you've paid 18.5% for your 40 years and now you want the next generation of workers to pay 30% to finance your largess?" He added that if 18.5% was "so immoral, why don't you give back some of your ill-gotten gains of the last 40 years?"
He has a similar argument for those on the left who say entitlements can be fixed with an eventual increase in payroll taxes. "Oh, I see," he says. "So I get to pay a 12% payroll tax now until I'm 65 and then I don't pay. But the next generation—instead of me paying 15% or having my benefits slightly reduced—they're going to pay 17% in 2033. That's why we're waiting—so we can shift even more to the future than to now?"
He also rejects the "rat through the python theory," which holds that the fiscal disaster will only be temporary while the baby-boom generation moves through the benefit pipeline and then entitlement costs will become bearable. By then, he says, "you have so much debt on the books that it's too late."
Unfortunately for taxpayers, "the debt accumulates while the rat's going through the python," so by the 2040s the debt itself and its gargantuan interest payments become bigger problems than entitlements. He points to a chart that shows how America's debt-to-GDP ratio, the amount of debt compared with national income, explodes in about 20 years. That's where Greece was when it hit the skids, he says, pointing to about 2030.
Breaking again with many Wall Streeters but consistent with his theme, Mr. Druckenmiller wants to raise taxes now on capital gains and dividends, bringing both up to ordinary income rates. He says the current tax code represents "another intergenerational transfer, because 60-year-olds are worth five times what 30-year-olds are."
And 65-year-olds are "much wealthier than the working-age population. So the guy who's out there working—the plumber, the stockbroker, whatever he is—he's paying the 40% rate and the coupon clippers who are not working anymore are paying a 20% rate."
Ah, but what about the destructive double taxation on corporate income? The Druckenmiller plan is to raise tax rates on investors while at the same time cutting the corporate tax rate to zero.
"Who owns corporations? Shareholders. But who makes the decisions at corporations? The guys running the companies. So if you tax the shareholder at ordinary income [rates] but you tax the economic actors at zero," he explains, "you get the actual economic actors incented to hire people, to do capital spending. It's not the coupon clippers that are making those decisions. It's the people at the operating level."
As an added bonus, wiping out the corporate tax eliminates myriad opportunities for crony capitalism and corporate welfare. "How do the lobbying groups and the special interests work in Washington? Through the tax code. There's no more building plants in Puerto Rico or Ireland and double-leasebacks and all this stuff. If you take corporate tax rates to zero, that's gone. But in terms of the fairness argument, you are taxing the shareholder. So you eliminate double taxation. To me it could be very, very good for growth, which is a huge part of the solution to the debt problem long-term. You can't do it without growth."
Amid the shutdown nonsense, this week's debt-ceiling accord did create an opening for some reform before the next deadline early next year. So what should Republican reformers like Paul Ryan do now?
"I would go for something simple that is very, very tough for the other side to argue, for example, means-testing Social Security and Medicare," which would adjust benefits by income. He notes again his impending eligibility for a monthly government check.
"I don't need it. I don't want it. I could also make the argument that every health expert will tell you that wealthy people live 4.5 years longer than the middle class or the poor. So I'm going to get paid 4.5 years more than the middle class or the poor," he says. "It's not that many dollars, but I think it would be a great symbol in seeing exactly how serious they are."
But Mr. Druckenmiller is not sure, so soon after the failed attempt to defund ObamaCare, that Republicans should demand entitlement reform in exchange for the next debt-limit vote this winter or spring. "Maybe they need a break," he says. "I think a much more effective strategy would be for them to publicly shine a light on something so obvious as means-testing and take their case to the American people rather than go through the actual debt limit."
If Mr. Obama rejects the idea, "then we will really know where he is on entitlement reform." For this reason, Mr. Druckenmiller views means-testing as "really the perfect start—and it should only be a start—to find out who's telling the truth here and who's not."
Mr. Freeman is assistant editor of the Journal's editorial page.