WSJ, August 17, 2011
Warren Buffett's Tax Dodge
The billionaire volunteers the middle class for a tax increase
Barney Kilgore, the man who made the Wall Street Journal into a national publication, was once asked why so many rich people favored higher taxes. That's easy, he replied. They already have their money.
That insight is worth recalling amid the latest political duet from President Obama and Warren Buffett demanding higher taxes on "millionaires and billionaires." Mr. Buffett is repeating his now familiar argument this week, coinciding with Mr. Obama's Midwestern road trip on the economy. Since the media are treating Mr. Buffett as a tax oracle, let's take a closer look at some of the billionaire's intellectual tax dodges.
• The double tax oversight. The Berkshire Hathaway magnate makes much of the fact that he paid only 17.4% of his income in taxes, which he considers unfair when salaried workers often pay more. But Mr. Buffett makes most of his income from his investments, in particular from dividends and capital gains that are taxed at a rate of 15%.
What he doesn't say is that much of his income was already taxed once as corporate income, which is assessed at a 35% rate (less deductions). The 15% levy on capital gains and dividends to individuals is thus a double tax that takes the overall tax rate on that corporate income closer to 45%.
• The middle-class bait-and-switch. Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Buffett speaks about raising taxes only on the rich. But somehow he ignores that the President's tax increase starts at $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. Mr. Obama ought to call them "thousandaires," but that probably doesn't poll as well.
The President needs to levy his tax increase at such a lower income level because that's where the money is. In 2009, 237,000 taxpayers reported income above $1 million and they paid $178 billion in taxes. A mere 8,274 filers reported income above $10 million, and they paid only $54 billion in taxes.
But 3.92 million reported income above $200,000 in 2009, and they paid $434 billion in taxes. To put it another way, roughly 90% of the tax filers who would pay more under Mr. Obama's plan aren't millionaires, and 99.99% aren't billionaires.
Mr. Buffett says it's only "fair" to raise his taxes, but he's lending his credibility to raising taxes on millions of middle-class earners for whom a few extra thousand dollars in after-tax income is a big deal. Unlike Mr. Buffett, those middle-class earners aren't rich and may earn $250,000 for only a few years of their working lives. How is that fair?
• The charity loophole. For billionaires like Mr. Buffett, the single most important deduction in the tax code is for charitable giving. Middle-class earners can't give nearly as much money away to reduce their overall tax burden. Yet we don't hear Mr. Buffett calling for the elimination of that deduction in the name of fairness.
Mr. Buffett has also already sheltered the bulk of his fortune from federal taxes by putting them into a foundation that will give the money away. That's an act of generosity, but if the government's purposes are so vital, why doesn't he simply give the money to the IRS?
Rebecca Quick of CNBC put that question to Mr. Buffett in 2007. His answer: "Well, that's a choice and it's an option . . . If I had to give it to a single individual, or make some young Buffett a multibillionaire, or give it to the government, I'd absolutely give it to the government. I think that on balance the Gates Foundation, my daughter's foundation, my two sons' foundations will do a better job with lower administrative costs and better selection of beneficiaries than the government."
Mr. Buffett is no doubt right about the relative efficiency of private donors, but should billionaire philanthropists get such a large tax preference? Another case of fairness?
Mr. Buffett is one of the great stock-pickers of his time, and we don't begrudge him a single dollar of his wealth. We only wish that, having already made himself rich, he weren't so intent on making it harder for others to become rich too. If he's worried about being undertaxed, we'd suggest he simply write a big check to Uncle Sam and go back to his day job of picking investments.