The Only Billionaire In Iowa Thinks Elizabeth Warren Makes Some Sense
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The Democratic presidential primary has been dominated by debates over wealth and taxes, driven by proposals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to levy a 3 percent annual wealth tax on billionaires. In the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa that’s bound to matter—for one man more than anybody else. Harry Stine, the founder of Stine Seed Co., is Iowa's only billionaire, with an estimated fortune of $1.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a ranking of the world’s wealthiest people.
So I called him up to see what he thinks about a wealth tax.
Stine, 77, is different than any billionaire (or even multimillionaire) I’ve interviewed before. To begin with, he picks up his own phone. “Good afternoon, this is Harry,” he said when I called.
And unlike any Iowan I’ve spoken to this cycle, he hasn’t yet made up his mind about whether he’d support a wealth tax. “It’s a good question,” he said. “I have mixed feelings about it.” Rarer still, he offers a thoughtful critique of both sides of the argument.
Stine is an entrepreneur who made his fortune building Stine Seed into America’s largest privately-owned seed company. Located in tiny Adel, Iowa (population: 3,682), it holds more than 800 patents, most concerning soybeans, and employs more than 500 people. He isn’t the sort of billionaire who flaunts his wealth. “I live pretty moderately,” Stine told me. “I’m wearing jeans and drove a pickup to work.”
While a billionaire’s tax would hardly cripple his fortune, Stine says, neither does he think it would serve a productive purpose—at least not for him or Stine Seed. He says ratcheting up taxes on his personal wealth will leave less for him to plow into the company for research.
On the other hand, Stine supports progressive taxation and sees merit in the efforts of Warren and others to prevent the emergence of a financial overclass. He has strong opinions about this and backs them up with action. “You want to know the quickest way to screw up your kids?” he said. “Give them excess wealth. It destroys their motivation to be productive and to work.” Stine has made sure his four children won’t suffer this fate by signing Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge to leave most of his fortune to charity. “We think most of our excess assets should go into a charitable foundation rather than to family,” he told me.
A self-made man, Stine has particularly low regard for wealthy heirs “who have simply inherited their money and haven’t done much with it, except go downhill.” He’s no fan of Trump. “Technically, I’m a registered Republican, but probably they’ve gone off the deep end the last few years a little more than I can accept,” he said. “Frankly, we are not pleased with Trump’s personality.”
Stine doesn’t sound much like a Warren supporter, but he noted that there’s “a whole basket full of folks coming on the Democratic side,” and insisted he hasn’t made up his mind about which one he’ll ultimately support. “I’m not really active in politics,” he said.
In the meantime, he’ll give more thought to the wealth tax and hopes Democrats will, too. If he had his druthers, they’d rework their proposals to avoid hurting productive enterprise. But whatever the outcome, he’ll be okay with it. “Our deal,” he said, “is tell us what the rules are and we’ll play by them.”
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