My response to Buffett and Obama

Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama and Warren Buffett meet in the Oval Office, July 14, 2010.

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  • The tax code is riddled with favors to various interest groups, just so politicians can retain power

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  • "Gifts to charities but gifts to grandchildren are not" Harvey Golub

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Over the years, I have paid a significant portion of my income to the various federal, state and local jurisdictions in which I have lived, and I deeply resent that President Obama has decided that I don't need all the money I've not paid in taxes over the years, or that I should leave less for my children and grandchildren and give more to him to spend as he thinks fit. I also resent that Warren Buffett and others who have created massive wealth for themselves think I'm "coddled" because they believe they should pay more in taxes. I certainly don't feel "coddled" because these various governments have not imposed a higher income tax. After all, I did earn it.

Now that I'm 72 years old, I can look forward to paying a significant portion of my accumulated wealth in estate taxes to the federal government and, depending on the state I live in at the time, to that state government as well. Of my current income this year, I expect to pay 80%-90% in federal income taxes, state income taxes, Social Security and Medicare taxes, and federal and state estate taxes. Isn't that enough?

Others could pay higher taxes if they choose. They could voluntarily write a check or they could advocate that their gifts to foundations should be made with after-tax dollars and not be deductible. They could also pay higher taxes if they were not allowed to set up foundations to avoid capital gains and estate taxes.

"Before you 'ask' for more tax money from me and others, raise the $2.2 trillion you already collect each year more fairly and spend it more wisely." -- Harvey Golub

What gets me most upset is two other things about this argument: the unfair way taxes are collected, and the violation of the implicit social contract between me and my government that my taxes will be spent--effectively and efficiently--on purposes that support the general needs of the country. Before you call me greedy, make sure you operate fairly on both fronts.

Today, top earners--the 250,000 people who earn $1 million or more--pay 20% of all income taxes, and the 3% who earn more than $200,000 pay almost half. Almost half of all filers pay no income taxes at all. Clearly they earn less and should pay less. But they should pay something and have a stake in our government spending their money too.

In addition, the extraordinarily complex tax code is replete with favors to various interest groups and industries, favors granted by politicians seeking to retain power. Mortgage interest deductions support the private housing industry at the expense of renters. Generous fringe benefits are not taxed at all, in order to support union and government workers at the expense of people who buy their own insurance with after-tax dollars. Gifts to charities are deductible but gifts to grandchildren are not. That's just a short list, and all of it is unfair.

Governments have an obligation to spend our tax money on programs that work. They fail at this fundamental task. Do we really need dozens of retraining programs with no measure of performance or results? Do we really need to spend money on solar panels, windmills and battery-operated cars when we have ample energy supplies in this country? Do we really need all the regulations that put an estimated $2 trillion burden on our economy by raising the price of things we buy? Do we really need subsidies for domestic sugar farmers and ethanol producers?

Why do we require that public projects pay above-market labor costs? Why do we spend billions on trains that no one will ride? Why do we keep post offices open in places no one lives? Why do we subsidize small airports in communities close to larger ones? Why do we pay government workers above-market rates and outlandish benefits? Do we really need an energy department or an education department at all?

Here's my message: Before you "ask" for more tax money from me and others, raise the $2.2 trillion you already collect each year more fairly and spend it more wisely. Then you'll need less of my money.

Harvey Golub is a member of AEI's Board of Trustees.

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