Dating back to his 2008 election campaign, President Barack Obama has repeatedly -- though not consistently -- proposed allowing the George W. Bush-era tax cuts to expire for people with incomes over $200,000 ($250,000 for a couple).
In the White House Rose Garden on Monday, the president made his plea again, but this time he added a flourish: a further tax increase -- details not yet available -- on Americans with incomes of more than a million dollars. This has become known as the “Buffett Rule,” after the billionaire Warren Buffett, who has argued for raising taxes on the well-to-do.
We have great admiration for Mr. Buffett. Not only that: We agree with him that it’s a scandal when he pays a lower average tax on his income than any of his employees. Although we would much prefer comprehensive tax reform that would eliminate most loopholes in exchange for lower marginal rates, we agree that Obama’s proposal to let the Bush tax cuts lapse for incomes of more than $250,000 is better than the status quo.
However, we don’t support a special tax on millionaires. Not because it’s damaging to the economy in and of itself, but because it’s silly. And silly can be dangerous if it stands in the way of sensible reform.
A debate over taxing millionaires (and Buffett urges yet another bracket for ten-millionaires) will eat up time and attention that needs to be hoarded for the important debate about quarter-millionaires (i.e., the $250,000 crowd), because that’s where the real money starts.
A special millionaires’ tax would affect three taxpayers out of 1,000. Absurdly, it would let people making, say, $900,000 off the hook. We have no idea how much revenue it would bring in --exact figures aren’t available because Obama is going to leave the exact structure of the tax to the so-called supercommittee of senators and representatives that grew out of last month’s debt-ceiling jamboree. It’s largely symbolic. Worse, it’s a distraction.
Graduated rates are important to make any tax system fair: People with higher incomes should pay more. And we suppose that people making $250,000 look up at people making $1 million and feel the same sense of unfairness that people making $25,000 feel about people making $60,000. That’s why comprehensive reform, rather than mucking around with the current tax code, should be a priority.
Politically, making a big hoo-ha about millionaires actually supports the Republican accusation, advanced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and others, that the whole thing is just “class warfare”: that making sure the money is collected is more important than how it is spent.
The Buffett Rule plays right into Obama’s unfortunate tendency to vilify people and institutions (medical-insurance companies, banks and so on). The criticism may be appropriate, but the vilification isn’t. In accusing his critics on Monday of wanting to put “all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans,” the president casually expelled the wealthy from “ordinary” society.
There is nothing inherently evil or even objectionable about making $1 million a year. People in that bracket are probably no worse, on average, than people who only make $900,000 or $800,000 or $37,298. The truth is that to straighten out our fiscal mess we are going to need more revenue from people making less than Obama’s sacred $250,000.
Taxes are not a punishment, nor are they class warfare. They are, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously put it, the price we pay for a civilized society. And that price needs to go up for everybody, not just for millionaires.
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