Warren Buffett’s Faulty Tax Math

Class-warfare activists were delighted when Warren Buffett recently complained that his tax rate was too low and that his secretary was subject to a higher effective tax rate. The various news reports, including the excerpt below from Tax-news.com, do not provide any detail on Buffett’s taxes, but he almost certainly was being either dishonest or ignorant.

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).

Last but not least, if Buffett really thinks he is not paying enough to government, he can write a check to George Bush, Ted Kennedy, and Nancy Pelosi. But he should not try to assuage his feelings of guilt by seeking higher taxes on other people:

Warren Buffett, perhaps the most successful investors of modern times and one of the world’s wealthiest men, has spoken out against the U.S. tax system which allows him to pay proportionately less of his multi-million dollar annual income in taxes than his cleaning lady. Addressing attendees at the $4,600-a-place fund-raising dinner for the Hilary Clinton presidential campaign, Buffett, who runs investment group Berkshire Hathaway and is reputedly worth $52 billion, told the 600 Wall Street bankers and money managers that: “(We) pay a lower part of our income in taxes than our receptionists do, or our cleaning ladies, for that matter. If you’re in the luckiest 1 per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent.” According to Buffett, he makes no use of tax shelters to mitigate his tax liability, but still managed to pay an average tax rate of 17.7% on his $46 million income last year. By comparison, his secretary, who earned $60,000, paid tax at 30%.