When the Titanic started taking on water, the rich were the first to claim the lifeboats. The rest were on their own.
With the U.S. economy sinking fast, President Donald Trump eagerly volunteered to decide who stays afloat — and who sinks. He sought to steer a $500 billion business loan and grant package cobbled together by the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.
The direct aid is part of a $2 trillion stimulus bill aimed at easing the pain of a capsizing economy. The Democrats squawked, the Republicans balked, and we’ll soon learn who gets thrown a lifeline — with an independent inspector general playing referee. Trump hotels and golf courses — and the businesses of his pals — need not apply.
Why be suspicious of government offering handouts without supervision? An object lesson is at hand. Slipped inconspicuously into the 2017 tax law was a provision for the creation of “Opportunity Zones.”
Opportunity Zones are advertised as a way to aid the disadvantaged. Anyone against that must be a foe of motherhood, apple pie and discounts on matinee movie tickets.
But let’s spoil the surprise. In this case, as in so many other examples of feebly conceived federal largesse, the generosity is aimed at the gentry — who can be relied upon to say, “I’ve got mine and I want some of yours.”
For them, billions in fresh tax breaks await.
The benefits for the deprived? Well, those are a little fuzzy.
The White House pitch on Opportunity Zones sounds downright altruistic, however.
“The stated goal of the tax benefit … was to coax investors to pump cash into poor neighborhoods, known as opportunity zones, leading to new housing, businesses and jobs,” the New York Times wrote last summer.
“The initiative allows people to sell stocks or other investments and delay capital gains taxes for years — as long as they plow the proceeds into projects in federally certified opportunity zones. Any profits from those projects can avoid federal taxes altogether.”
The good news was the program ensures the poor end up with more prospects — jobs and better places to live. Right?
Not so fast.
Across the nation, the federal government designated nearly 8,800 Opportunity Zones. They number 25 in Hennepin County and 19 in Ramsey County, with 84 others dotted across the map of Minnesota.
But here’s the beauty of the deal — for investors, if not for the “have-nots,” the program promises to profit. Of the census tracts designated as Opportunity Zones, 5 to 7% need not be home to a large percentage of the poor. Indeed, some can be merely “adjacent.”
You know, like pedestrians who walk past a Mercedes dealership and are briefly adjacent to a luxury car.
Opportunity Zones are the latest example of a program to help those in need by proxy. A lot of money gets detoured in the journey.
Instead of giving the deprived enough money to pay market rents, build a housing project with lots and lots of well-compensated “middle men.”
Rather than ensuring that the unfortunate have access to doctors, create tax-advantaged “medical savings accounts” that benefit those with enough surplus to save.
Not only do Opportunity Zones fail to guarantee new projects will directly help the poor, they can be applied to real estate deals already cooked up or underway before the Trump tax law was enacted. Call it retroactive benevolence.
But investors need not take the spotlight for their magnanimity. Across the country, consortiums are bundling money from investors into giant funds that will plow cash into Opportunity Zones. Some backers may choose to go public. Others may not.
Fortunately, for participants in Trump’s new real estate tax break, poor people can be found all over the map.
That’s why, in Minnesota, “Opportunity Zones” include that pocket of poverty known as the Mall of America in Bloomington. In St. Paul, the commercial heart of the Midway shopping district and land surrounding the new Allianz soccer stadium. In Minneapolis, a housing project at Lake Street and Hiawatha.
Minnesota has been the site of seminars inviting prospective Opportunity Zone investors to take the money and run.
One developer told Twin Cities Business magazine last year that he figures Opportunity Zone tax breaks will add about 2.5 to 5 percentage points to the internal rate of return on the Minnesota projects he has underway.
Brick-and-mortar, subsidized by new federal tax breaks, may trickle down to the disadvantaged in the form of jobs or housing. But that’s assumed, not required.
Don’t be surprised if the housing comes in the form of apartments of the $2,500-a-month variety and the jobs are relatively few and pay humble wages.
In reality, Opportunity Zones represent yet another public subsidy for private gain. Just one more layer in a Dagwood sandwich of public handouts that include tax-increment financing, tax abatements and myriad other forms of tax relief for commercial real estate owners.
Just who’s investing in Opportunity Zones? Round up the usual suspects — the well-heeled and the politically well-connected.
The Times found many prominent names proud to proclaim their public spirit. One eye-catcher: the architect of Middle East peace and overlord of Trump’s Great Wall, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
“Cadre, an investment company co-founded by Mr. Kushner and his brother, Joshua, is raising hundreds of millions of dollars that it hopes to use on opportunity-zone projects,” the Times reported. “The company is eyeing neighborhoods in Savannah, Ga., Dallas, Los Angeles and Nashville that are expected to grow larger and wealthier in coming years.”
Kushner recently sold his stake in Cadre, taking advantage of a tax law clause that allows him to defer his capital gains. How much did he profit from the three-year investment? That remains to be seen.
“Kushner’s financial disclosure form in 2017 listed his Cadre stake as being worth between $5 million and $25 million, and his most recent disclosure listed the value as somewhere between $25 and $50 million,” the Times reported earlier this month.
Investors in other Opportunity Zone deals include former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and one-time Trump administration transition leader, Anthony Scaramucci, former Trump communication director, and Richard LeFrak, a Trump crony who also made his fortune in New York real estate.
“Mr. Scaramucci’s development in New Orleans offers a portrait of how the tax break works. His investment company, SkyBridge Capital, is using the so-called opportunity zone initiative to help build a hotel, outfitted with an opulent restaurant and a rooftop pool, in the city’s trendy Warehouse District.”
The Times noted that some money has made its way into “downtrodden” communities like Birmingham, Ala., and Erie, Pa.
Proponents “argue that more funds will follow. And they note that because no data exists on where investments are being made, it is impossible to quantify the benefits going to the wealthy versus the poor,” the Times wrote.
At the request of three Democrats in Congress, the Treasury Department’s inspector general has embarked on an investigation into how the tax breaks are being doled out.
No wonder the prospect of President Trump micromanaging the new economic recovery plan — with a half-trillion dollars at his discretion — represents a frightening prospect. At least, for anyone not well-connected.
The coming recession will leave millions out of work and in fear for their lives. This is no time for an exercise in crony capitalism, where exploiting opportunity can mean exploiting taxpayers and those truly in need.
Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a writer in Minneapolis.