From the NY Times Stop Coddling the Super-Rich
By WARREN E. BUFFETT
Published: August 14, 2011
OUR leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.
While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as “carried interest,” thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate. Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors.
These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It’s nice to have friends in high places.
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.
If you make money with money, as some of my super-rich friends do, your percentage may be a bit lower than mine. But if you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine — most likely by a lot.
To understand why, you need to examine the sources of government revenue. Last year about 80 percent of these revenues came from personal income taxes and payroll taxes. The mega-rich pay income taxes at a rate of 15 percent on most of their earnings but pay practically nothing in payroll taxes. It’s a different story for the middle class: typically, they fall into the 15 percent and 25 percent income tax brackets, and then are hit with heavy payroll taxes to boot.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.
I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.
Since 1992, the I.R.S. has compiled data from the returns of the 400 Americans reporting the largest income. In 1992, the top 400 had aggregate taxable income of $16.9 billion and paid federal taxes of 29.2 percent on that sum. In 2008, the aggregate income of the highest 400 had soared to $90.9 billion — a staggering $227.4 million on average — but the rate paid had fallen to 21.5 percent.
The taxes I refer to here include only federal income tax, but you can be sure that any payroll tax for the 400 was inconsequential compared to income. In fact, 88 of the 400 in 2008 reported no wages at all, though every one of them reported capital gains. Some of my brethren may shun work but they all like to invest. (I can relate to that.)
I know well many of the mega-rich and, by and large, they are very decent people. They love America and appreciate the opportunity this country has given them. Many have joined the Giving Pledge, promising to give most of their wealth to philanthropy. Most wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.
Twelve members of Congress will soon take on the crucial job of rearranging our country’s finances. They’ve been instructed to devise a plan that reduces the 10-year deficit by at least $1.5 trillion. It’s vital, however, that they achieve far more than that. Americans are rapidly losing faith in the ability of Congress to deal with our country’s fiscal problems. Only action that is immediate, real and very substantial will prevent that doubt from morphing into hopelessness. That feeling can create its own reality.
Job one for the 12 is to pare down some future promises that even a rich America can’t fulfill. Big money must be saved here. The 12 should then turn to the issue of revenues. I would leave rates for 99.7 percent of taxpayers unchanged and continue the current 2-percentage-point reduction in the employee contribution to the payroll tax. This cut helps the poor and the middle class, who need every break they can get.
But for those making more than $1 million — there were 236,883 such households in 2009 — I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains. And for those who make $10 million or more — there were 8,274 in 2009 — I would suggest an additional increase in rate.
My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.
Americans Don't Realize Just How Badly We're Getting Screwed by the Top 0.1 Percent Hoarding the Country's Wealth
(First Published in Alternet)
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With an unprecedented sum of wealth, tens of trillions of dollars, held within the top one-tenth of one percent of the US population, we now have the most severe inequality of wealth in US history. Not even the robber barons of the Gilded Age were as greedy as the modern-day economic elite.
As American philosopher John Dewey said, “There is no such thing as the liberty or effective power of an individual, group, or class, except in relation to the liberties, the effective powers, of other individuals, groups or classes.”
In my report, The Economic Elite vs. the People, I reported on the strategic withholding of wealth from 99 percent of the US population over the past generation. Since the mid-1970s, worker production and wealth creation has exploded. As the statistics throughout this report prove, the dramatic increase in wealth has been almost entirely absorbed by the economic top one-tenth of one percent of the population, with most of it going to the top one-hundredth of one percent.
If you are wondering why a critical mass of people desperately struggling to make ends meet are still not fighting back with overwhelming force and running the mega-wealthy aristocrats out of town, let’s consider two significant factors:
1) People are so busy trying to maintain their current standard of living that their energies are consumed by holding onto the little they have left.
2) People have very little understanding of how much wealth has been consolidated within the top economic one-tenth of one percent.
Considering the first factor, it is obvious that people have become beaten down psychologically and financially. A report in the Guardian titled, “Anxiety keeps the super-rich safe from middle-class rage,” suggests that people are so desperate to hold onto what they have that they are too busy looking down to look up: “As psychologists will tell you, fear of loss is more powerful than the prospect of gain. The struggling middle classes look down more anxiously than they look up, particularly in recession and sluggish recovery.”
Considering the second factor, people do not understand how much wealth has been withheld from them. The average person has never personally experienced or seen the excessive wealth and luxury that the mega-rich live in. Wealth inequality has grown so extreme and the wealthy have become so far removed from average society, it is as if the rich exist in some outer stratosphere beyond the comprehension of the average person. As the Guardian report states:
“… having little daily contact with the rich and little knowledge of how they lived, they simply didn’t think about inequality much, or regard the wealthy as direct competitors for resources. As the sociologist Garry Runciman observed: ‘Envy is a difficult emotion to sustain across a broad social distance.’… Even now most underestimate the rewards of bankers and executives. Top pay has reached such levels that, rather like interstellar distances, what the figures mean is hard to grasp.”
In fact, the average American vastly underestimates our nation's severe wealth disparity. This survey, featured in the NY Times, reveals that Americans think our society is far more equal than it actually is:
“In a recent survey of Americans, my colleague Dan Ariely and I found that Americans drastically underestimated the level of wealth inequality in the United States. While recent data indicates that the richest 20 percent of Americans own 84 percent of all wealth, people estimated that this group owned just 59 percent – believing that total wealth in this country is far more evenly divided among poorer Americans.
What’s more, when we asked them how they thought wealth should be distributed, they told us they wanted an even more equitable distribution, with the richest 20 percent owning just 32 percent of the wealth. This was true of Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor – all groups we surveyed approved of some inequality, but their ideal was far more equal than the current level.”
This chart shows the survey's results:
The overwhelming majority of the US population is unaware of the vast wealth at hand. An entire generation of unprecedented wealth creation has been concealed from 99 percent of the population for over 35 years. Having never personally experienced this wealth, the average American cannot comprehend what is possible if even a fraction of the money was used for the betterment of society.
Given modern technology and wealth, American citizens should not be living in poverty. The statistics demonstrate that we now live in a neo-feudal society. In comparison to the wealthiest one-tenth of one percent of the population, who are sitting on top of tens of trillions of dollars in wealth, we are essentially propagandized peasants.
The fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans are struggling to get by, while tens of trillions of dollars are consolidated within a small fraction of the population, is a crime against humanity.
The next time you are stressed out, struggling to make ends meet and pay off your debts, just think about the trillions of dollars sitting in the obscenely bloated pockets of the financial elites. I still cling to the hope that once enough people become aware of this fact, we can have the non-violent revolution we so urgently need. Until then, the rich get richer as a critical mass with increasingly dire economic prospects desperately struggles to make ends meet.