"Understanding the economy is essential to being an informed citizen of our democracy. My goal is to explain trenchantly how the economy is changing and how economic policies we adopt today will shape the lives of future generations."
David Wessel is director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal & Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution, which he joined in 2014 after 30 years as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes. David is the author of two New York Times best-sellers: “In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke’s War on the Great Panic” and “Red Ink: Inside the High Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget.” He tweets frequently at @davidmwessel.
A few pages quietly slipped into the 2017 tax cut law created an archipelago of 8,764 tax havens across the United States known as Opportunity Zones billed as a way to offer rich folks lucrative capital-gains tax breaks to put their money into left-behind communities. Illustrating how Washington really works in this new Gilded Age, Only the Rich Can Play traces the origins of OZs, as they’re known, from their progenitor, Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame, and the think tank he funded to design them, organize a bipartisan coalition to support them, and lobby them into law – with Sen. Tim Scott, the sole Black Republican in the Senate, playing a pivotal role both in Congress and in winning Donald Trump’s backing at a pivotal moment.
The book details the no-guardrails approach the Trump Treasury took to administering OZs and the choices (some good, some bad) that the nation’s governors made in designating the zones from the list of eligible census tracts. Only the Rich Can Play describes the gold rush that was triggered when tax lawyers, accountants and real estate investors discovered the provision, and then turns to where the money went (a lot of it to places like prosperous downtown Portland, Oregon) and for what (often hotels, condos, self-storage facilities and luxury student-housing) and where it didn’t (places like Baltimore) – and highlights a few places (South LA and Erie,Pa.) where Opportunity Zones are doing what they were supposed to do.
“David Wessel is a Washington treasure, and anything he writes is a must-read as far as I’m concerned. In Only the Rich Can Play David marries the depth of his understanding of economics with his years of experience as a Washington reporter and his skill at storytelling. He traces the origins of the Opportunity Zone Tax break from conception to birth and then shows how it actually working (or not) on the ground. This is both a great read and an important one because it shows those of us outside Washington how things really work there.”
– Bryan Burrough, co-author of Barbarians at the Gate and Forget the Alamo
“David Wessel has long been one of the keenest observers of the American economy. This book shows his remarkable ability to combine intellectual meat with compelling narrative. Many Silicon Valley moguls are politically clueless, but Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook managed to slip his real estate investment scheme -- Opportunity Zones -- into law, despite almost no support from traditional thought leaders. You should read this book if you want to understand how to get things done in Washington. You should read this book if you want to understand the most important new urban policy in a generation. You should read this book if you just want to be entertained by a terrific political yarn.”
– Edward Glaeser, Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics Harvard University
“A fascinating and entertaining – albeit at times depressing and infuriating – story of how a major policy initiative came to be... a lesson in how social policy in America should not be made, but too often is, and an explanation of why the rich always seem to win.”
– Melissa Kearney, Neil Moskowitz Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland
“Vegas, opulent parties, wine-filled dinners … not since the classic Showdown at Gucci Gulch has tax policy making been this much fun. But look beyond the vivid anecdotes and there’s an important and underappreciated story about a program that will cost the federal treasury billions while helping a fraction of the people Congress intended. Wessel weaves together on-the-ground reporting, the best data and evidence, and deep knowledge of the policy process to show how strong moral convictions, vast wealth, and a turbocharged media presence can run up against entrenched special interests and inadequate vetting. The result, as one interviewee says, is a missed opportunity indeed.”
– Tracy Gordon, The Urban Institute
"If you want to understand how the US has ended up with a tax code that on paper is progressive but in practice is so regressive that the very wealthy pay virtually no tax, Only the Rich Can Play is the place to start. In his wry style, Wessel uses the story of a tax provision dreamed up by a tech billionaire to show what happens when good intentions and arrogance collide with our tax-avoidance-industrial complex."
– Paul Romer, New York University, Nobel Laureate in Economics
“A must-read for anyone who wants to really understand how an idea can in time become a law—with the help of a large budget, skilled lobbying, and the support of a few key members of Congress. I thought I knew a bit about how Washington works, but I learned an enormous amount from David Wessel’s very carefully researched and extremely well written book.”
– David M. Rubenstein, cofounder and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group and author of How to Lead
A capital-gains tax break sold as a way to induce the wealthy to invest in poor neighborhoods, opportunity zones appear to be providing more opportunity for the wealthy to cut their tax bills than to the people who live in designated zones. It’s a case study on how very hard it is to tweak the tax code to direct money to places and activities that Congress favors without creating windfalls for the rich.
The U.S. tax code is larded with provisions that the wealthy use to reduce their taxes. Some get a lot of attention, while some are inserted into tax bills very quietly—like Opportunity Zones. Six pages tucked into the sprawling 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act led to the creation of 8,764 of these tax havens across the U.S., ostensibly to lure private capital to poor neighborhoods.... The idea for Opportunity Zones didn’t come from economists or policy experts. It was the brainchild of the tech investor Sean Parker, of Napster and facebook fame, who told me earlier this year that his objective was “to democratize access to capital.”