We all need a hero. In my lifetime, I've had lots of them. From sports figures: Eddie Joost, shortstop for the Philadelphia A's, when I was growing up. To politicians: JFK and Eugene McCarthy. To journalists, like Edward R. Murrow and Molly Ivins.
I have a new hero today: the sage of Omaha. I've never met him. I don't own, nor could I afford, even one share of stock in his company, Berkshire Hathaway ($112,000 on Oct. 12). But I think Warren Buffett's the perfect hero for today because he reminds us that being an American is not all about greed. And he's willing to put his money where his mouth is.
Buffett is a rare creature, indeed. He's a billionaire who says there's nothing wrong with asking the wealthiest of Americans to pay higher taxes. He argues that, because they've been so successful, those at the top of the ladder should be grateful to pay more taxes to a country that has given them such unlimited opportunities. At the very least, they should happily pay the same rate of taxes as the person who cuts their hair, mows their lawn, or drives their car.
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In short, Buffett's a rich man who's willing to pay his fair share in taxes. And, for that reason alone, he's earned the enmity of Republican leaders today, who tried to demonize him. They accused him of lying. They condemned him for not voluntarily paying more in taxes. And they challenged him to release his tax returns.
Not so easily deterred, Buffett called their bluff. In a letter to Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp, the billionaire investor reinforced his case by revealing both the staggering amount of money he made last year and the relatively small amount he paid in taxes.
2010 was good to Buffett. His adjusted gross income was a whopping $62,855,038. After charitable donations and other deductions, his taxable income was $39,814,784. He paid only $15,300 in payroll tax, the same amount any wage earner making $107,000 would pay. On top of that, he paid $6,923,494 in federal income tax. That's a lot of money, to be sure, but it only adds up to an overall tax rate of 17.4 percent.
Compare that to what other Americans pay. According to the Tax Policy Center, the average rate for 80 percent to 90 percent of taxpayers, those earning between $103,000 and $163,000 a year, is 18.2 percent. Those earning up to $211,000 pay 19.8 percent, and those earning from $211,000 to $533,000 pay an average 20.4 percent.
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Buffett made his point. He's the second-wealthiest man in America. And yet, following the rules, he pays a lower rate of taxes than well over 95 percent of taxpaying Americans. That's not fair, he says. "My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress," he wrote in an August New York Times op-ed. "It's time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice." And the American people agree. In the latest CBS News poll, 64 percent of all Americans – including 83 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans – agree that taxes should be raised on millionaires to lower the deficit.
The only people who disagree with the unfairness of today's tax system are today's Republican leaders, who cling to the myth that cutting taxes on the rich is the way to create new jobs – when all the evidence, in fact, proves just the opposite. In 1993, Bill Clinton raised the top income-tax rate to 36 percent. The result was 22 million new jobs and a budget surplus. In 2001 and 2003, George W. Bush cut taxes for the wealthiest of Americans. The result was a loss of 8 million private-sector jobs and staggering deficits. President Obama extended the Bush tax cuts for two years, yet there are still 14 million Americans unemployed today.
Warren Buffett's not the first to champion tax fairness. In 1985, President Reagan said: "We're going to close the unproductive tax loopholes that have allowed some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share. In theory, some of those loopholes were understandable, but in practice they sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary. And that's crazy."
If Republicans don't believe Warren Buffett about taxes, maybe they should start listening to Ronald Reagan.