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.
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.
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.
Under current law, Social Security is supposed to be an "earned benefit," where taxes are akin to insurance premiums that finance retirement benefits for workers. And because there is a cap on retirement benefits, this means there also is a "wage-base cap" on the amount of income that is hit by the payroll tax.
For 2011, the maximum annual retirement benefit is about $28,400 and the maximum amount of income subject to the payroll tax is about $107,000.
It appears that President Obama wants to radically change this system so that it is based on a class-warfare model. During the 2008 campaign, for instance, then-Senator Obama suggested that the program's giant long-run deficit could be addressed by busting the wage-base cap and imposing the payroll tax on a larger amount of income.
For the past two years, the White House (thankfully) has not followed through on this campaign rhetoric, but that's now changing. His Fiscal Commission, as I noted last year, suggested a big hike in the payroll tax burden. And the President reiterated his support for a class-warfare approach earlier this week, leading the Wall Street Journal to opine:
Speaking Tuesday in Annandale, Virginia, Mr. Obama came out for lifting the cap on income on which the Social Security payroll tax is applied. Currently, the employer and employee each pay 6.2% up to $106,800, a level that rises with inflation each year.
...Mr. Obama didn't hint at specifics, though he did run in 2008 on a plan to raise the "tax max" by somewhere between two to eight percentage points for the top 3% of earners.
...[M]ost of the increase could be paid by the middle class or modestly affluent — i.e., those who merely make somewhat more than $106,800. A 6.2% additional hit on every extra dollar they make above that level is a huge reduction from their take-home pay. If the cap is removed entirely, it will also mean a huge increase in the marginal tax rates that affect decisions to work, invest and save. In a recent paper for the American Enterprise Institute, Andrew Biggs calculates that this and other tax increases Mr. Obama favors would bring the top marginal rate to somewhere between 57% and 68% when factoring in state taxes. Tax levels like these haven't been seen since the 1970s.
Obama is cleverly avoiding specifics, largely because the potential tax hike could be enormous. The excerpt above actually understates the potential damage since it mostly focuses on the "employee" side of the payroll tax. The "employer" share of the tax (which everyone agrees is paid for by workers in the form of reduced take-home wages) is also 6.2 percent, so the increase in marginal tax rates for affected workers could be as high as 12.4 percentage points.
After the jump is a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by yours truly, that elaborates on why this is the wrong approach.
- Penalizing millionaires won’t help President Obama get re‐elected, but partnering with Republicans on corporate tax reforms and spending cuts would boost the economy — and his prospects.
- Of course, both Republicans and President Obama will have to stop pretending to cut defense spending if either want the economy to recover.
- Chasing the energy independence white rabbit isn’t helping much, either.
- Soaking the rich definitely won’t work.
- When you look back at the grueling [sic] debate over an underwhelming $38 billion in spending cuts, you realize the fight was never about cutting spending – it was over how much to grow the size and scope of government:
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.
In a very predictable editorial this morning, the New York Times pontificated in favor of higher taxes. Compared to Paul Krugman’s rant earlier in the week, which featured the laughable assertion that letting people keep more of the money they earn is akin to sending them a check from the government, the piece seemed rational. But that is damning with faint praise. There are several points in the editorial that deserve some unfriendly commentary.
First, let’s give the editors credit for being somewhat honest about their bad intentions. Unlike other statists, they openly admit that they want higher taxes on the middle class, stating that “more Americans — and not just the rich — are going to have to pay more taxes.” This is a noteworthy admission, though it doesn’t reveal the real strategy on the left.
Most advocates of big government understand that it will be impossible to turn America into a European‐style welfare state without a value‐added tax, but they don’t want to publicly associate themselves with that view until the political environment is more conducive to success. Most important, they realize that it will be very difficult to impose a VAT without seducing some gullible Republicans into giving them political cover. And one way of getting GOPers to sign up for a VAT is by convincing them that they have to choose a VAT if they don’t want a return to the confiscatory 70 percent tax rates of the 1960s and 1970s. Any moves in that direction, such as raising the top tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent next January, are part of this long‐term strategy to pressure Republicans (as well as naive members of the business community) into a VAT trap.
Shifting to other assertions, the editorial claims that “more revenue will be needed in years to come to keep rebuilding the economy.” That’s obviously a novel assertion, and the editors never bother to explain how and why more tax revenue will lead to a stronger economy. Are the folks at the New York Times not aware that both economic growth and living standards are lower in European nations that have imposed higher tax burdens? Heck, even the Keynesians agree (albeit for flawed reasons) that higher taxes stunt growth.
The editorial also asserts that, “Since 2002, the federal budget has been chronically short of revenue.” I suppose if revenues are compared to the spending desires of politicians, then tax collections are — and always will be — inadequate. The same is true in Greece, France, and Sweden. It doesn’t matter whether revenues are 20 percent of GDP or 50 percent of GDP. The political class always wants more.
But let’s actually use an objective measure to determine whether revenues are “chronically short.” The Democrat‐controlled Congressional Budget Office stated in its newly‐released update to the Economic and Budget Outlook that federal tax revenues historically have averaged 18 percent of GDP. They are below that level now because of the economic downturn, but CBO projects that revenues will climb above that level in a few years — even if all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent. Moreover, OMB’s historical data shows that revenues were actually above the long‐run average in 2006 and 2007, so even the “since 2002” part of the assertion in the editorial is incorrect.
On the issue of temporary tax relief for the non‐rich, the editorial is right but for the wrong reason. The editors rely on the Keynesian rationale, writing that, “low‑, middle– and upper‐middle‐income taxpayers…tend to spend most of their income and the economy needs consumer spending” whereas “Tax cuts for the rich can safely be allowed to expire because wealthy taxpayers tend to save rather than spend their tax savings.”
I’ve debunked Keynesian analysis so often that I feel that I deserve some sort of lifetime exemption from dealing with this nonsense, but I’ll give it another try. Borrowing money from some people in the economy and giving it to some other people in the economy is not a recipe for better economic performance. Economic growth means we are increasing national income. Keynesian policy simply changes who is spending national income, guided by a myopic belief that consumer spending somehow is better than investment spending. The Keynesian approach didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, it didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s, and it hasn’t worked for Obama.
And it doesn’t matter if the Keynesian stimulus is in the form of tax rebates. Gerald Ford’s rebate in the 1970s was a flop, and George W. Bush’s 2001 rebate also failed to boost growth. Tax cuts can lead to more national income, but only if marginal tax rates on productive behavior are reduced so that people have more incentive to work, save, and invest. This is an argument for extending the lower tax rates for all income classes, but it’s important to point out that the economic benefits will be much greater if the lower tax rates are made permanent.
Last but not least, the editorial asserts that, “The revenue from letting [tax cuts for the rich] expire — nearly $40 billion next year — would be better spent on job‐creating measures.” Not surprisingly, there is no effort to justify this claim. They could have cited the infamous White House study claiming that the so‐called stimulus would keep unemployment under 8 percent, but even people at the New York Times presumably understand that might not be very convincing since the actual unemployment rate is two percentage points higher than what the Obama Administration claimed it would be at this point.
The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of this year, which means a big tax increase in 2011. Tax rates for all brackets will increase, the double tax on dividends will skyrocket from 15 percent to 39.6 percent, the child credit will shrink, the death tax will be reinstated (at 55 percent!), the marriage penalty will get worse, and the capital gains tax rate will jump to 20 percent. All of these provisions will be unwelcome news for taxpayers, but it’s important to look at direct and indirect costs. A smaller paycheck is an example of direct costs, but in some cases the indirect costs — such as slower economic growth — are even more important. This is why higher tax rates on entrepreneurs and investors are so misguided. For every dollar the government collects from policies targeting these people (such as higher capital gains and dividend taxes, a renewed death tax, and increases in the top tax rates), it’s likely that there will be significant collateral economic damage.
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s approach is to look at tax policy only through the prism of class warfare. This means that some tax cuts can be extended, but only if there is no direct benefit to anybody making more than $200,000 or $250,000 per year. The folks at the White House apparently don’t understand, however, that higher direct costs on the “rich” will translate into higher indirect costs on the rest of us. Higher tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship will slow economic growth. And, because of compounding, even small changes in the long‐run growth rate can have a significant impact on living standards within one or two decades. This is one of the reasons why high‐tax European welfare states have lost ground in recent decades compared to the United States.
When the economy slows down, that’s not good news for upper‐income taxpayers. But it’s also bad news for the rest of us — and it can create genuine hardship for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The White House may be playing smart politics. As this blurb from the Washington Post indicates, the President seems to think that he can get away with blaming the recession on tax cuts that took place five years before the downturn began. But for those of us who care about prosperity more than politics, what really matters is that the economy is soon going to be hit with higher tax rates on productive behavior. It’s unclear whether that’s good for the President’s poll numbers, but it’s definitely bad for America.
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner took the lead Sunday in continuing the Obama administration’s push for extending middle‐class tax cuts while allowing similar cuts for the nation’s wealthiest individuals to expire in January. …The tax cuts, put in place between 2001 and 2003, have become an intensely political topic ahead of the congressional elections this fall. Republicans have argued that extending the full spectrum of tax cuts is essential to strengthening the sluggish economic recovery. Geithner rejected that notion, telling ABC’s “This Week” that letting tax cuts for the wealthiest expire would not hurt growth. …On Saturday, the president used part of his weekly address to chide House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other Republicans who oppose the administration’s approach, saying the GOP was pushing “the same policies that led us into this recession.”
Australia got rid of its death tax in 1979. A couple of Aussie academics investigated whether the elimination of the tax had any impact on death rates. They found the ultimate example of supply-side economics, as reported in the abstract of their study.
In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our results are driven by misreporting, our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.
It looks like this experiment is going to be repeated in the United States, but in the opposite direction. There was a rather unsettling article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. The story begins with a description of how the death tax rate dropped from 45 percent in 2009 to zero in 2010, and then notes the huge implications of a scheduled increase to 55 percent in 2011.
Congress, quite by accident, is incentivizing death. When the Senate allowed the estate tax to lapse at the end of last year, it encouraged wealthy people near death's door to stay alive until Jan. 1 so they could spare their heirs a 45% tax hit. Now the situation has reversed: If Congress doesn't change the law soon—and many experts think it won't—the estate tax will come roaring back in 2011. ...The math is ugly: On a $5 million estate, the tax consequence of dying a minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011 rather than two minutes earlier could be more than $2 million; on a $15 million estate, the difference could be about $8 million.
The story then features several anecdotes from successful people, along with observations from those who deal with wealthy taxpayers. The obvious lesson is that taxpayers don't want the IRS to confiscate huge portions of what has been saved and invested over lifetimes of hard work.