Warren Buffett’s Fiscal Innumeracy
Posted by Dan Mitchell on August 15, 2011
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 signficant.
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.
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