On Warren Buffett and Stephen King

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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.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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