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Warren Buffett Is Wrong On Taxes

July 28, 2011 — The Wall Street Journal — By Stephen Moore   Bookmark and Share

The Oracle of Omaha is at it again. On July 7, Warren Buffett told Bloomberg: "I think the rich have a responsibility to pay higher tax rates." Then he groused that his wealthy friends are "paying lower tax rates than the people who are serving us the food." Mr. Buffett has been voicing this complaint for years, once observing that his personal tax rate of 17.7% is lower than that of his receptionist (30%).

During Monday night's national address, President Obama recited the Buffet line that millionaires and billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Democrats in Congress routinely cite Mr. Buffett's tax confessions as irrefutable evidence that tax rates on the very rich are too low and the system is unfair. And the system would be unfair, if Mr. Buffett's tax facts were the whole truth. But they aren't.

I don't know the details of Warren Buffet's personal taxes, and he hasn't made them public. But the IRS does provide reliable data on effective tax rates -- the overall share of their income that various groups pay in federal income taxes (not including state or local taxes) after accounting for all deductions and exemptions. These are different than marginal tax rates, which are paid on the next dollar of income and now peak at 35% for individuals.

IRS data for 2008, for example, show that households in the top 10% of earners (above about $114,000) paid 19% of their income to the feds. Those in the top 1% (above $380,000) paid 23.3%. The top 0.1% of earners, with incomes of $2 million or more, end up paying a slightly lower tax of 22.7%, because they get more of their income from investments (more about this below).

So what about the rest of us? According to IRS data, a median-income household ($35,000) in 2008 paid about 4% of its income in federal income tax.

Mr. Buffett may have been referring to all federal taxes, not just income taxes, when he said the rich pay less than others. His secretary and most workers in America do pay a lot in Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, but even accounting for them the federal system is highly progressive.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), middle-class families in 2007 (earning between $34,000 and $50,000) paid an effective 14.3% of their income in all federal taxes. The top 5% of income earners paid 27.9% and the top 1% paid 29.5%. And what about the highest earners? Americans with annual incomes above $2 million paid an average 32% of their income in federal taxes in 2005 (the most recent year for which data are available).

So how does Mr. Buffett arrive at such a low personal tax rate? He may have been referring to a 2010 IRS study of the 400 richest American taxpayers, a list he's probably on. It showed those people paid an effective federal income tax of 18.1% in 2008.

Yet that study crucially omits the corporate income tax, which is mostly borne by the owners of companies.

Mr. Buffett owns about one-quarter of his investment company Berkshire Hathaway, and his shares are worth about $38 billion. This wealth is mostly stored in what are technically called "unrealized capital gains." Eventually when those gains are converted into income, he will pay a capital gains tax. Even so, in 2008 Berkshire paid $3 billion in corporate taxes. And since Mr. Buffett is the principal owner, he shoulders a big share of that tax.

The reason for the light capital gains and dividend tax is that corporations pay up to a 35% tax on their profits before a dime of it is passed on to shareholders. The real tax rate on corporate income paid to individuals through capital gains and dividends is not 15%. It is closer to 45% once you count the tax on corporate profits. If the dividend tax rises to 20% next year from 15% today, then the total tax on dividends paid to shareholders would be closer to 50%, and that doesn't include state and local taxes.

To his credit, Mr. Buffett has criticized President Obama's near-obsessive calls for higher taxes on corporate jets. As Mr. Buffet correctly noted, the writeoffs companies take for capital expenditures such as jets are legitimate business expenses.

Overall, though, Warren Buffett is wrong on taxes. The tax system is already far too reliant on the wealthy to pay the government's bills. Taxes on millionaires and billionaires are already near a record high in terms of the share of all income taxes paid. And the effective tax rate on this group is much higher, not lower, than any other income category. The best way to balance the budget is for the economy to produce a lot more American success stories like Warren Buffett.

Mr. Moore is senior economics writer for the Journal's editorial page.