If you use Facebook, or any form of social media, you’ve probably seen it about six-thousand times already. But on the off-chance that you didn’t, hyper-billionaire Warren Buffett took to yesterday’s Times opinion pages to beg America to force the super-rich, like him, to pay their fair share. Let’s investigate.
The way I read it, Mr. Buffett takes aim at three myths:
- That the rich already pay their fair share,
- That current brackets approximate confiscatory taxation, such that any increase would be unfair, and,
- That the rich would rather leave the country than pay higher taxes.
Republican backlash against the article was swift and brutal — which rather suggests that its author is on to something — and entirely off-point (e.g.). That Mr. Buffett’s comparatively lower tax burden is the product of aggressive deductions and good accounting practice doesn’t detract from his argument that the tax code is broken. Instead, it proves it.
As an avowed philargyrist, in fundamental competition with others who certainly will not shy away from taking tax exemptions wherever applicable, Mr. Buffett would be foolish not to seek, in all cases, to minimize his tax burden. Because exemptions are available, market forces and basic business sense require that he, and other similarly situated billionaires, take them. He could pay more, it’s true. But the basic inobligality of such an act dooms it. Taxpayers will (and should) pay the least that they legally can. If we want more, we can’t rely on charity, we have to change the law.
Put it another way: capitalism works because we permit selfishness, and harness the results. Mr. Buffett, by words and deeds, validates the selfish impulse, but observes that under the current tax code, the actors too easily slip the bonds that pull the whole system forwards. Nothing could be simpler.
The article seeks to set us straight on a critical point: we used to have a progressive tax system, but thanks to years of lobbying and loopholes, we no longer do. It should also prompt a decision: we can either return to a system where the necessary cost of government is paid by those capable of paying it; or we can entrench a culture where success carries no concomitant obligation — one where Jack Kennedy was wrong — and let the middle classes keep paying it.
Or we can take the Republican route, and just stop paying it altogether.