So Write a Check and Shut Up, Warren

When billionaires piously say that they should pay more taxes, the rest of us should hide our wallets. Warren Buffett, the so-called “Sage of Omaha” says his tax rate is too low. That’s a strange attitude, to be sure, but if Buffett wants to write an extra check to the government, he should go right ahead. Heck, the Treasury Department even has a website with a mailing address for people who are foolish enough to flush more of their money into the Washington sewer. Unfortunately, Buffett’s real agenda is to agitate for higher tax burdens for the rest of us. As the UK-based Guardian reports:

The United States’ second-richest man has delivered a blunt message to the Bush administration: he wants to pay more tax. Warren Buffett, the famous investor known as the “Sage of Omaha”, has complained that he pays a lower rate of tax than any of his staff - including his receptionist. Mr Buffett, who is worth an estimated $52bn (£25bn), said: “The taxation system has tilted towards the rich and away from the middle class in the last 10 years. It’s dramatic; I don’t think it’s appreciated and I think it should be addressed.” … Buffett’s remarks drew a robust response from the US Chamber of Commerce, which said the top 1% of US earners accounted for 39% of tax revenue - and the highest earning 25% of the population delivered 86% of the tax-take.

The Chamber of Commerce correctly notes that the tax code already is heavily biased against rich people, and it certainly is true that higher tax rates will hinder economic performance and make America more like Europe (which would hurt receptionists more than billionaires). But the reporter should have done some simple fact checking and discovered that Buffett has no idea what he’s talking about regarding tax rates. I addressed this issue back in June, in response to another Warren-wants-the-rest-of-us-to-pay-more episode:

It is probably safe to assume that Buffett receives lots of dividend income and that he also declares a considerable amount of capital gains, both of which are subject to a 15 percent tax rate on an individual tax return. What he did not mention, however, is that corporations pay a 35 percent tax before distributing dividends to shareholders, so the actual effective tax rate on that portion of Buffett’s income is closer to 50 percent.

The capital gains tax is another example of double taxation. An increase in the value of a stock is a reflection of an anticipated increase in the future income stream from that stock. Yet that income stream will be taxed (usually two times!) when it occurs. The real effective rate on that portion of Buffett’s income is harder to calculate, but it certainly will be far higher than 15 percent.

Shifting gears, Buffett’s calculations almost surely include Social Security payroll taxes, which only apply to the first $90,000 of income in exchange for not providing huge benefit payments to rich retirees. Indeed, the overall program is highly progressive once benefit payments are added to the equation, so Buffett’s secretary gets a better deal than he does from Social Security (though both would be better off with a system of personal retirement accounts).