Tag: warren buffett

Warren Buffett’s Fiscal Innumeracy

Warren Buffett’s at it again. He has a column in the New York Times complaining that he has been coddled by the tax code and that “rich” people should pay higher taxes.

My first instinct is to send Buffett the website where people can voluntarily pay extra money to the federal government. I’ve made this suggestion to guilt-ridden rich people in the past.

But I no longer give that advice. I’m worried he might actually do it. And even though Buffett is wildly misguided about fiscal policy, I know he will invest his money much more wisely than Barack Obama will spend it.

But Buffett goes beyond guilt-ridden rants in favor of higher taxes. He makes specific assertions that are inaccurate.

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

His numbers are flawed in two important ways.

  1. When Buffett receives dividends and capital gains, it is true that he pays “only” 15 percent of that money on his tax return. But dividends and capital gains are both forms of double taxation. So if he wants honest effective tax rate numbers, he needs to show the 35 percent corporate tax rate.

    Moreover, as I noted in a previous post, Buffett completely ignores the impact of the death tax, which will result in the federal government seizing 45 percent of his assets. To be sure, Buffett may be engaging in clever tax planning, so it is hard to know the impact on his effective tax rate, but it will be significant.

  2. Buffett also mischaracterizes the impact of the Social Security payroll tax, which is dedicated for a specific purpose. The law only imposes that tax on income up to about $107,000 per year because the tax is designed so that people “earn” a corresponding  retirement benefit (which actually is tilted in favor of low-income workers).

    Imposing the tax on multi-millionaire income, however, would mean sending rich people giant checks from Social Security when they retire. But nobody thinks that’s a good idea. Or you could apply the payroll tax to all income and not pay any additional benefits. But this would turn Social Security from an “earned benefit” to a redistribution program, which also is widely rejected (though the left has been warming to the idea in recent years because their hunger for more tax revenue is greater than their support for Social Security).

If we consider these two factors, Buffett’s effective tax rate almost surely is much higher than the burden on any of the people who work for him.

But this entire discussion is a good example of why we should junk the corrupt, punitive, and unfair tax code and replace it with a simple flat tax. With no double taxation and a single, low tax rate, we would know that rich people were paying the right amount, neither too much based on class-warfare tax rates nor too little based on loopholes, deduction, preferences, exemptions, shelters, and credits.

So why doesn’t Buffett endorse this approach? Tim Carney offers a very plausible answer.

For more information about why class-warfare taxes are misguided, this video may be helpful.

You Look Mahvelous

“Bijan Pakzad, an extravagant fashion designer and boutique owner who happily and unabashedly made wealthy men look rich, feel rich and smell rich,” has died, reports the Washington Post. Mr. Pakzad explained that he catered to customers who “normally aren’t concerned about inflation.”

His slogan — “the costliest men’s wear in the world” — helped his opulent clothing store become known as the West Coast’s one-stop Savile Row.

While drinking champagne presented by white-gloved butlers, customers could shop for $2,500 silk pajamas, $1,500 cologne, a $24,000 mink-lined topcoat, a $19,000 ostrich vest, $55,000 crocodile luggage or even a $120,000 Mongolian chinchilla bedspread lined with silk.

Who could afford such clothes? Warren Buffett and Bill Gates? Yes, but they don’t look like they spend so much money on clothes. The Post names a few customers:

From the moment in 1976 when Mr. Pakzad first opened Bijan, his Rodeo Drive emporium, three words bedecked the entrance: “By appointment only.”

The locked-door policy made clear that Mr. Pakzad exclusively catered to men who had money, power or fame — and usually all three. His clients included President Obama, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Stevie Wonder, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Jordan.

Wait, President Obama? That’s not the same Barack Obama who told college graduates not to “take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy,” is it?

Charitable Donations to the Government

The New York Times took a look at people who voluntarily send money to Washington in order to help pay down the federal debt. Last year, the Bureau of the Public Debt received $3.1 million in such donations. Looking at the federal budget, I found a total of $241 million in “gifts and contributions” for fiscal year 2010.

Charitable donations to the federal government are insignificant when compared to donations made to private charities. A Cato essay on welfare spending points out that Americans contribute more than $300 billion a year to organized private charities and volunteer more than 8 billion hours a year to charitable activities, which can be valued at about $158 billion.

Thus when given the choice, people overwhelmingly entrust their donations to private charities not the government. One can only imagine what donations to private charities would be if government at all levels didn’t confiscate trillions of our dollars in taxes every year.

Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, decided several years ago to leave most of his fortune to private charities. Buffett is notorious for advocating tax increases to support government spending. Yet, when he made the decision to donate his wealth, Buffett went with the private sector instead of the government.

A frustrating aspect of today’s public policy debate is that many pundits seem oblivious to the fact that the private sector could take care of those people truly in need if it was allowed to retain more of its earnings from the clutches of government. The government “crowds out” all kinds of private efforts and resources. If the government were to recede, private sector efforts to aid the needy would expand.

Warren Buffett: Good Investor, Crummy Economist

Warren Buffett once said that it wasn’t right for his secretary to have a higher tax rate than he faced, leading me to point out that he didn’t understand tax policy. The 15 percent tax rates on dividends and capital gains to which he presumably was referring represents double taxation, and when added to the tax that already was paid on the income he invested (and the tax that one imagines will be imposed on that same income when he dies), it is quite obvious that his effective marginal tax rates is much higher than anything his secretary pays. Though he is right that his secretary’s tax rate is much too high. 
 
Well, it turns out that Warren Buffett also doesn’t understand much about other areas of fiscal policy. Like a lot of ultra-rich liberals who have lost touch with the lives of regular people, he thinks taxpayer anger is misguided. Not only does he scold people for being upset, but he regurgitates the most simplistic Keynesian talking points to justify Obama’s spending spree. Here’s an excerpt from his hometown paper.

Taxpayer anger against President Barack Obama and Congress is counterproductive because policy makers took measures including deficit spending to stimulate the economy, billionaire investor Warren Buffett told CNBC. …“I hope we get over it pretty soon, because it’s not productive,’’ Buffett said. “We will come back regardless of how people feel about Washington, but it is not helpful to have people as unhappy as they are about what’s going on in Washington.” …“The truth is we’re running a federal deficit that’s 9 percent of gross domestic product,” Buffett said. “That’s stimulative as all get out. It’s more stimulative than any policy we’ve followed since World War II.”

About the only positive thing one can say about Buffett’s fiscal policy track record is that he is nowhere close to being the most inaccurate person in the United States, a title that Mark Zandi surely will own for the indefinite future.

Would the Schools Work Better If They Outlawed All Competitors?

In the Washington Post, columnist Courtland Milloy praises the “profound egalitarian insights” and “radical oneness” of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (and billionaire Warren Buffett):

“I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education’s power to reverse generational poverty,” Rhee wrote. “But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today’s problems in urban education. ‘Make private schools illegal,’ he said, ‘and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.’ “

Milloy’s not satisfied that Rhee is taking on entrenched interests, firing principals and teachers who aren’t doing a good job, and apparently actually improving the schools in the District of Columbia. No, he’s attracted to the “radical concept” of outlawing private schools and forcing everyone in the District into the same schools, with no hope of escape. There would be one method of escape, of course: moving to the suburbs.  And you can bet that lots more people would do that if Milloy and Rhee got their way.

I wonder what a total government monopoly on education would look like. Are Buffett and Rhee right that a government monopoly forced on every citizen would work well? Would work so well that it would “solve the problems of urban education … and reverse generational poverty”?

Well, one answer might be glimpsed on the same page B3 where part of Milloy’s column appeared. In an adjacent column, columnist John Kelly discussed his “Kafkaesque” five-hour visit to the state of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration:

I was at the MVA. I was in Hell.

I know that complaining about the MVA or the DMV is the last refuge of a scoundrel columnist, but I don’t care. You don’t know what it was like. You weren’t there, man. I spent five hours at the Beltsville MVA on Thursday. Five hours. I could have driven to New York in that time….

I thought: Can this really be happening? Can I really have stepped into a Kafka story? Shouldn’t every counter be filled with employees working as fast as possible? Shouldn’t management be out there helping, and Maryland state troopers, too? This is the Katrina of waiting, people.

The MVA, of course, is a monopoly government bureaucracy. Everyone must go there – CEOs, diplomats, even Washington Post columnists. And yet, somehow, that has not led to the MVA equivalent of solving problems and reversing poverty. Five hours to get a drivers’ license just might be worse performance than that of the public schools.

It’s the system, Mr. Milloy and Ms. Rhee. Monopolies don’t have much incentive to improve. Give everyone the chance to go to a different supplier, and then you’ll see improvement. Giant Food wouldn’t last long if it took five hours to buy your groceries – because it has competitors. But as long as the schools are a near-monopoly, and the MVA or DMV is a total monopoly, don’t expect real improvement.

For Gates and Buffett, the Deity’s in the Details

As I write in the San Jose Mercury News today:

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett want the world’s billionaires to donate half their wealth to charity. If they’re successful with just their American peers, they’ll raise about $600 billion — an amount U.S. public schools spend in a single year. And therein lies a problem.

The problem is that one of their chief goals, shared by many of their billionaire peers, is to improve American education – an institution whose ultimate outcomes have not improved in four decades despite the infusion of trillions of additional dollars.

Buffett blames some of our educational woes on a “distorted” market system that rewards great investors ”with sums reaching into the billions,” while it “rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes.”

But the problem is not that our market system is distorted, the problem is that education isn’t part of it.

If we want educational excellence to be replicated and scaled up the way it is in other fields, we have to structure it as we have structured those other fields. Make it possible for the greatest educators to become billionaires, make it necessary for the worst to find different work, and let the former be separated from the latter through the countless choices of individual families.