Lately, zillionaire Warren Buffet has been making headlines and political brownie-points (with Democrats, at least) by going round the country saying that wealthy people have been “coddled” and should pay more taxes. Tax-and-spend liberals like Barack Obama are in complete agreement, of course. Mr. Obama has been saying much the same since before he was elected president. In fact, he says this about millionaires as well as billionaires – essentially blurring the distinction between them by relying on the fact that most of the hoi polloi hear “zillionaire” when he speaks of either level of wealth.
The president has also cast his net over those earning more than $200,000 a year, as though this income-level certainly makes one a millionaire. This may not be true at all, of course, since a high gross income might be due to a small business’s receipts being run through an individual’s tax return. Much of that income could be offset by business expenses.
Conversely, actual millionaires might not have incomes as high as $200,000. Many people have wealth that technically puts them in the millionaire category – e.g., real estate, retirement savings, and other investments – but that wealth might produce no taxable income.
According to available data, 10.5 million American families have net worth exceeding $1 million, including their residences. This is down from 12.6 million in 2006, but the number is on the rise again. Economists expect the millionaire-count to exceed 20 million by 2020.
The number of American billionaires is far fewer, of course. Forbes magazine gives the current count as 413. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates lead that group with personal wealth of $56 billion and $50 billion, respectively. The total wealth of US billionaires is estimated at $1.5 trillion. As noted in earlier columns, this total wealth would not defray the deficit in federal expenditures for a single year, at present.
The total annual income of all billionaires is naturally much less than their wealth. Nevertheless, they make a tempting target for Mr. Obama’s populist-envy appeals. He continues to suggest that our deficit problems will be eliminated if these people will simply pay “their fair share” – even if the reality is that a 100% tax on their incomes wouldn’t come close to closing the budget hole.
I find Warren Buffet’s remarks about wealthy people needing to pay more taxes annoying because a favorite liberal tactic is to strike a charitable pose by calling for others to pay more taxes. Naturally, we assume that Mr. Buffet includes himself in the group he thinks should pay more, but we don’t really know how much of his income is protected from taxation by prudent investment. When John Kerry ran for president in 2004, he was embarrassed when it was revealed that most of the $50 million income produced by his wife’s $1 billion fortune each year came from tax-free interest on bonds. We have no idea what Mr. Buffet’s tax situation is, nor has he revealed it, to my knowledge.
Whatever his tax status, the fact is that Mr. Buffet is perfectly free to pay more taxes any time he chooses, as may any American (or non-American, for that matter). With wealth of $56 billion, WB might easily receive an annual income of $2 billion or more. No doubt his expenses are high, but one imagines he could scrape along on $1 billion a year, leaving a billion or so for Uncle Sam – or Uncle Obama, in this case. This, I think, would be an entirely appropriate expression of Mr. Buffet’s patriotism and/or faith. He would not have to worry about getting new tax-legislation passed. His example would surely draw many imitators from the company of filthy rich people eager to assuage their guilt by paying more taxes.
It’s fun to make sport of these things, to a point, but there is a serious problem beneath all the jesting. The fact is that the Biblical concept of “charity” has gotten so twisted that many people now think charity means getting government to help people who are in real (or perceived) need. Naturally, the more good works government does, the more of our money it requires. An individual’s “morality” thus becomes defined by his willingness to pay ever-higher taxes to fund government’s benevolence – even when such benevolence is questionable or corrupt. Mr. Buffet and others like him are “evangelists” for this new brand of charity. People who don’t go along with it are branded “immoral.”
New expressions of this reformed concept of charity are emerging regularly now. The latest one is an outrageous attack on Texas Governor Rick Perry by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. In an article written for The Atlantic (“Is Rick Perry as Christian as he thinks he is?” August 15, 2011), Ms. Townsend questions the quality of Gov. Perry’s Christian faith because it does not conform to her belief that government is the means by which Christians should help the needy among us. I urge my readers to look at her full article, which can be found at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/08/is-rick-perry-as-christian-as-he-thinks-he-is/243616/
I won’t attempt to critique Lt. Gov. Townsend’s article except to note that she does view many Biblical passages through the lens of statist thought. By way of doing this she makes a serious muddle of the passage in Matthew 22 where Jesus defines the Greatest Commandment. Ms. Townsend thinks its focus is caring for our neighbors. In fact, Jesus indicated that the focus is on loving God when He said:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39, NIV)
In 2008, when Mr. Obama talked to Joe the Plumber about spreading the wealth around, the Mainstream Media either ignored his remarks or claimed that he didn’t really mean what we clearly heard him say. Our ears must have deceived us. But they hadn’t, as we now know.
Ms. Townsend’s article is a more fulsome expression of the redistributionist ethic that Mr. Obama articulated then and has espoused throughout his presidency. She clearly shows how the radical left has co-opted Biblical teachings of charity and benevolence in their campaign to remake American morality. Watch for more and more writings and teachings along these lines – particularly if you think you have little in common with “social conservatives.” If Mr. Perry is nominated to run for president on the GOP slate, a flood of similar screeds and attacks will erupt. Radical liberals will be telling us that morality and taxes are not separate matters. They go together like a horse and carriage.
If Mr. Buffet has the means to cough up megabucks more in taxes, then God bless him. Let him spend himself down to mere millionaire status if he wants to. But let it be all his money, his morality, and his personal charity. We’ll all take care of our own charity, thank you.