Wall Street Trading Tax Gets Conservative Group’s Unlikely Tout

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A conservative think tank is throwing its support behind proposals long associated with progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders: taxing stock trades and breaking up Wall Street investment banks.

Washington-based American Compass argues such measures are necessary to undo the economic damage caused by decades of excessive speculation and not enough sustainable investment. The plan was released Thursday by founder Oren Cass, a former Bain & Co. management consultant who worked on Republican Senator Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.

“Investment means actually building something for the future that enhances our prosperity, but most of what we call investment isn’t that at all,” he said in an interview. Cass, 37, said he wants to lay “the groundwork for what a kind of post-Trump conservatism should look like.”

Republicans have traditionally been viewed as the pro-business party but ex-President Donald Trump tested that alliance by initiating trade wars, cracking down on immigration and blasting companies for moving jobs overseas. GOP lawmakers who’ve touted similar populist views might be the most receptive to Cass’s message that Wall Street has failed working families.

Among those he’s most closely aligned with are Senators Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, who’ve participated in American Compass events. Cass has sparred with lawmakers who’ve defended the financial industry, including Senator Pat Toomey, the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.

Some congressional Republicans, Cass says, indicate privately they’re receptive to transaction taxes and breaking up banks. The mania tied to GameStop Inc. and other stocks has prompted progressive Democrats to renew their push for a levy on trades. While it’s unlikely many GOP lawmakers will warm to the idea, if a few do, the threat to Wall Street would become more serious.

Meanwhile, Republican Senators Toomey, Roy Blunt, Rob Portman, Richard Burr and Richard Shelby all plan to retire, offering “greater political space for the GOP’s younger, insurgent populists to flex their muscles,” Republican lobbying firm CGCN Group wrote in a recent memo to clients. That threatens “an unraveling” of the party’s coalition with corporate America, CGCN said.

It also may be an opening for Cass and his vision for what he calls a “multi-ethnic, working class conservatism.” His report cited research showing net non-residential fixed investment as a share of gross domestic product has fallen by almost half since the 1970s.

“The extraordinary growth of the financial sector’s non-investment has coincided with a sharp decline in the real economy’s actual investment,” said Cass, who formed American Compass last year. “Massive profits rely not on value-creating transactions but on extracting the wealth that once fueled the real economy’s growth.”

The group’s first campaign aimed to persuade pro-business Republicans to be more skeptical of private equity firms and hedge funds. It has hosted discussions with Rubio, whose chief of staff sits on the board, and other GOP lawmakers. Cass doesn’t identify donors.

Cass knows he has a tough sell persuading Republicans to publicly support a transaction tax, which he concedes is also true about his pitch to force investment banks to hive off units that speculate on markets.

“These are just different businesses, and they should be understood differently,” Cass said. “We need to draw very clear lines.”

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