On Warren Buffett and Stephen King

The continuing argument about plutocrats who want to be taxed more heavily is puzzling to me. It seems to cause confusion where there really shouldn't be any. There are those who say: If Warren Buffett wants to pay more tax, he should shut up and just send a check to the IRS. And there are those who find that idea ridiculous and irrelevant: Buffett's saying the tax code is unfair, and he can't put that right by sending in a donation.

Two of The Economists' bloggers (here and here) have been debating Stephen King's recent contribution to the tax-me-more literature. King's with Buffett.

I want [the rich] to acknowledge that in America, we all should have to pay our fair share. That our civics classes never taught us that being American means that--sorry, kiddies--you're on your own. That those who have received much must be obligated to pay--not to give, not to "cut a check and shut up," in Governor Christie's words, but to pay--in the same proportion. That's called stepping up and not whining about it. That's called patriotism, a word the Tea Partiers love to throw around as long as it doesn't cost their beloved rich folks any money.

One of The Economist's bloggers found this impressive--mainly, so far as I can tell, because King had chosen the right side. Apparently, all right-minded people want the "if-you-want-your-taxes-raised-why-don't-you-send-the-IRS-a-bigger-cheque" meme finally dead and buried.

All right, but before we bury it let's see if we can understand it. I think it's childishly simple once you recognize that two separate questions are involved.

  1. Would IRS donations by Warren Buffett and Stephen King make the tax code fairer? No.
  2. Would IRS donations by Warren Buffett and Stephen King help to remedy the inequity they say the tax code causes? Yes.

In other words, Warren Buffett and Stephen King should write generous checks to the IRS and not shut up, but keep demanding the fairer system they say they want.

Here's a parallel. Suppose I'm thinking of becoming a vegetarian. I think eating animals is immoral. I think there should be a law against it. But at the moment it's legal, and my giving up meat wouldn't really make much difference. So I intend to remain a carnivore until justice prevails and everybody is forbidden to eat meat.

It seems to me that this position is ethically unsatisfactory. My turning vegetarian would not be a pointless gesture. It would bear witness to my ethical convictions and might make others follow my example. And whereas my giving up meat really wouldn't have much quantitative impact, Buffett's tens of billions and King's hundreds of millions are fiscally non-negligible. It's a start. And anyway, continuing to enjoy the benefits of the tax system's gross unfairness is just plain wrong, isn't it?

So keep talking, by all means--but send in the checks as well.

Presented by

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In