Monday, September 19, 2011

The Vanderbilt Rule

President Obama has "branded" his proposal to increase taxes on "millionaires and billionaires." The new proposal will now be known as the "Buffett Rule."

The basic principle underlying the Buffett Rule is that uber-wealthy taxpayers should pay higher effective tax rates than middle-class taxpayers.

I'm not sure how the Buffett Rule is supposed to work in practice. Perhaps it is supposed to be a "Super AMT." Perhaps it is supposed to increase tax rates on capital gains for uber-wealthy taxpayers. Or limit the deductibility of charitable donations. Or cap the amount of qualifying tax-exempt income in a given year. Perhaps the President will limit the proposal to taxpayers that report more than $1 million in taxable income during a given year. Or perhaps he will extend it to working professional married couples with $250,000 taxable incomes.

Regardless of the mechanics, the spirit of the President's proposal is simple class warfare. It doesn't take a political messiah to persuade 90% of the voting public to favor increased taxes on the other 10%. You can play with the numbers (95/5, 99/1, etc.)

The irony of the "branding effort" didn't escape financial analyst Jeff Macke at Yahoo Finance Breakout:
Warren Buffett made billions off the financial crisis by getting Goldman Sachs (GS) and General Electric (GE) to pay him usurious rates in exchange for what amounted to endorsement deals. Buffett is giving his entire estate to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation because he is of the opinion that the government is a poor allocator of capital. Buffett would like me to pay higher taxes to the very government he's opting to stiff.

Mr. Buffett has never met a preferential deal he didn't like and has 56,000 times as much money as someone with $1 million. The only reason the White House is using Buffett to promote this tax hike is because the administration thinks voters are ignorant regarding who Buffett really is. Buffett has no more place in a Jobs Act conversation than does the ghost of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Buffett is a legendary investor and has created fantastic wealth for thousands of his shareholders. However, Macke hits the nail on the head. Buffett's proclamation that millionaires and billionaires should pay higher taxes reeks of hypocrisy. And somehow, the hypocritical mega-billionaire has taken center stage in the debate over the President's second stimulus proposal (ahem, "jobs plan").

Next time, why not link class warfare tax policy to someone with more historical gravitas? Personally, I think the "Vanderbilt Rule" has a much nicer ring than the "Buffett Rule." And after all, Vanderbilt was one of the richest Americans in history.

Meanwhile, Halloween is just around the corner. Would it be difficult to pull off the Ghost of Cornelius Vanderbilt?

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