I am far from an iconoclast, but I am getting a little weary of Warren Buffett’s posturing as a social democrat. He is a brilliant investor and a pretty good aphorist, and his shtick as friendly, folksy Uncle Warren, the Sage of Omaha, though a tired routine, has been an effective one. But he is an extremely wealthy man because he is a relentlessly hardball operator. His masquerade as a public-policy expert is starting to resemble nothing so much as the antics of entertainers who try to translate their renown as vocalists or actors into political influence. But most of them are airheads, oblivious to the fact that it is incongruous to opine on the exigencies of a reformed welfare state while paying below the minimum wage to the undocumented immigrants who roll their tennis courts.
No reasonable person debates Warren Buffett’s talents any more than Barbra Streisand’s, but in his case, he knows what he is saying is bunk, and he should know that most of his audience is suspicious of his motives. His comments in the New York Times
this week on why he should be taxed more are spurious, and presumably just another public-relations exercise by a mega-billionaire who sees what a shambles his friends in the administration are making, and is tilting farther left to preempt public-relations problems. His years of padding around university campuses with Bill Gates in their corduroy trousers and viyella shirts explaining that they weren’t really interested in money were hard enough to take, but this next act, solo, as a slimmed-down Santa without beard, sleigh, or red uniform is wearing thin.
Though I consider the spirit of J. P. Morgan’s famous “The public be damned!” to be somewhat dated and inegalitarian, it did — like Orson Welles’s statement as Charles Foster Kane (a parody of William Randolph Hearst) in Citizen Kane that “People will think what I tell them to think!” — at least have a ring of sincerity. As President Bush II said, in response to Buffett and others, the Treasury will deposit their checks, if they are so concerned that they want to contribute more to national revenues. They don’t have to wait for the taxman, and the legislators whom Warren (a very amiable and unpretentious man, from my very slight acquaintance with him) chastises for taking only almost 18 percent of his income. Of course, I have no standing to debate his tax rate with him, but he knows that the way to deal with the problem he identifies as paying a lower rate of tax than the people in his office and the middle class and even most wage-earners would be a wealth tax, and not a legislative fishing expedition in search of imputable income of very wealthy people less ambitious to provoke tax increases than he is.
He might stand still while the tax-swatter approached, but most of his income peers, in so far as he has any, would not. They would fly away in tax-planning terms, and what we would get is an escalation of the cat-and-mouse game of legislators and tax experts on licit avoidance. And a wealth tax, though it would be more collectible than taxes on large and unconventional incomes, would offend the American ethos of not confiscating, at least until death, the proceeds of the legitimate successes of individual American enterprise. And it would open the gates to terrible abuse, as legislators who are afraid to cut spending, pare entitlements to those who don’t need them, raise the actuarial presumptions about Social Security 67 years after its adoption and after the average life expectancy of participants has risen by over ten years, and other steps that will have to be taken, would resort to tokenistic fiscal persecution of the most affluent. Few living things, animal or vegetable, are more tenacious than a politician clinging to an envisioned panacea to justify the deferral of hard decisions. The country waited for the bust of the stimulus monstrosity, and then for the Simpson-Bowles report to be shelved, and for various futile and demeaning bipartisan jawbonings; if anyone took this Buffettism seriously, it would push things out into the next presidential term.