So here's this Honda CRV in front of me at the stoplight. And here's this bumper sticker: "Warren Buffett is My Hero. Capitalist with a Conscience." And I figure, while waiting for the light to change: Small wonder the economic acumen on display at Occupy Wall Street and like venues is so, shall we say, for politeness' sake, undernourished.
The notion of Warren Buffett as folk hero capitalist could -- I say could -- proceed from his announcement five years ago of plans to give away $37.4 billion of his fortune, mostly to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A deeper suspicion lurks, nonetheless. I mean, five years ago: that was then, this is now.
What's the ingenious Buffett currently most famous and inspirational for? Wanting to raise the tax rates of millionaires like himself; a desire in tune with current protests noting the supposed ascendancy over us of "millionaires and billionaires" (to use President Obama's phrase).
To single out Buffett for high-mindedness in wanting to pay more taxes, is to tar, by comparison, those of whatever income level who suspect or deplore the idea of giving government more money than it takes in already.
The varied "occupation" armies whose troops assail the capitalist system have as targets of their wrath a familiar stereotype. Those of us who more than half a century ago immersed themselves in "Walt Disney's Comics & Stories" know the stereotype well: Scrooge McDuck, Donald's comically acquisitive uncle, forever sporting top hat and spats, given to amusing himself by swimming as it were in a vast storage bin of money. "Unca Scrooge," at the end of the tale, usually came up trumps, consenting to help the downtrodden but only after a little spluttering about people who apparently think he's made of money.
It's the same myth retailed at the various "occupation" camps we see and read about daily. We gotta pull down the capitalists, it seems. It's just all so unfair they have so much money. Hardly anyone, to be sure, has as much money the Sage of Omaha; but, then, he's a different breed of capitalist, it appears. Compassion (so the bumper sticker suggests) is his middle name. Which -- to repeat the point -- is likely due these days to his advocacy of inviting the government to tax him more.
"My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress," Buffett wrote in the New York Times last Aug. 14, apparently precipitating the hero worship that takes place at stoplights. The solution: "raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million," with additional imposts on earners of $10 million or more annually.
Ample credit is due Warren Buffett for deciding to give away most of his fortune. Somehow, nonetheless, the current offering up of millionaires for federal plucking deserves contextual scrutiny.
A fat cat with a conscience thinks the federal government needs more money in order that it might… what? Fund more "shovel-ready" projects? Save teaching jobs? Pay down the national debt? You don't get that particular kind of guidance, of course, from a bumper sticker. What you do get is the sense that the more money taxpayers give to Washington, the better off we all are. That's without respect to the drag that taxation levels may create on economic growth and private-sector job creation. The benefit of the doubt always goes to government in these contexts. The government needs more money because the government needs more money because… you get the idea pretty quickly.
Actually the wells of compassion are sunk pretty deeply in the American character, as witness the extraordinary level of charitable giving. Americans last year donated $291 billion to charity, an amount 3.8 percent larger than the recession-induced levels of 2009 and 2008.
As it happens, Warren Buffett isn't the only wealthy patrons of charity (notwithstanding his status as the world's third richest man). Twenty-five percent of all charitable giving last year came from the fat cat set. The dollars themselves came from the earnings of men and women not quite so successful as Buffett but impelled by the essentially the same motive -- that of earning, compiling, building up.
Buffett in his New York Times article contended higher tax rates wouldn't suppress the desire to earn. Possibly not. What higher rates might produce is strategies and schemes to undertake investments valuable largely as shields for earnings -- ways not so much of putting good ideas to work as of avoiding entrapment by the IRS code. The Wall Street occupiers don't buy this line. Fat cats, they reason, get that way from raping the public: for which reason we ought to reduce their rewards.
Capitalists with Consciences. Hmmm. Want to bet even the folk hero Warren Buffett fails to see expropriation and confiscation as evils of the most damaging character?
Buffett the donor: Yes, hooray, good show. Buffett the advance man for tax increases and renewal of the Big Brother state? As Uncle Scrooge might well have put it, back in the day: "Quack, quack!"
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