Mr. Mega Bucks, Warren Buffet, wants “billionaire-friendly Congress” to stop coddling him and his super-rich pals. To do so he proposes fiscal reform. For 97.7% of Americans this means leaving income tax rates where they are and continuing the 2-percentage-point reduction to the payroll tax that workers pay. For the wealthiest 2.3% of Americans, however, he proposes immediate increases in the income tax rate. Only by way of fiscal reform, Buffet writes, will policymakers show that “[i]t’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”
This “shared sacrifice” that Buffet writes about is misleading. Is he talking about the tax burden that Americans share or the nationwide effort to survive the current economic recession? Perhaps “shared sacrifice” refers to the men and women fighting American wars abroad? No matter how he frames it, however, Buffet is trying to unite the experiences of the rich and those of the middle class and the poor. This is an exercise in futility: About the only experience they have in common is death.
Does Warren Buffet even speak for the 236,883 American households who earned over $1 million in 2009, or the 8,274 who earned over $10 million that year, or even the 400 Americans who reported the largest incomes? He certainly speaks on their behalf. So, assuming he is their mouthpiece, and that they’re all in agreement with his proposed fiscal reforms, it’s still safe to say that America’s mega-rich have got a long way to go before they join the ranks of middle class and poor Americans feeling the pain of the Great Recession.
At the heart of what ordinary Americans are “sharing” is exploitation: The federal government takes their children, taxes, and votes and gives little in return. The human cost of this transaction cannot be compared to an increased tax rate for millionaires. To do so trivializes the day to day struggles of ordinary Americans. Besides, the federal government’s exploitation of the super-rich is mediated by the privileges that wealth can buy. Wealthy Americans help policymakers get elected—that’s how Congress got so billionaire-friendly in the first place.
I commend Mr. Mega Bucks for publicly challenging the federal government to increase the tax rates for millionaires. But Buffet must be careful with the rhetoric he uses. Fiscal reform is not about the rich sharing the same sacrifices as the middle class and the poor. Different social classes make different kinds of sacrifices, and comparing or equating them is risky business. Rather, fiscal reform is about leveling the playing field, so that all Americans pay the same taxes in proportion to income. Now there’s an idea worth its weight in gold.