Buffett vs. Koch in the Tax Reform Battle of Billionaires

Taxes should be collected more fairly and spent more wisely.

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Warren Buffett, the liberals' favorite rich person, kicked off a "Battle of the Billionaires" by writing in The New York Times on Aug. 14 that "my friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It's time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice."

Buffett's piece was a clarion call by one of the nation's "mega rich" (his phrase) for higher taxes on people like himself, written as though America's basic problem is that people—especially those who earn the kind of money he does—are under-taxed.

More likely the problem is the incongruity of the U.S. tax code than it is with people at the tip of the economic pyramid not being taxed enough. It is certainly true that Washington has plenty of money already. What is not necessarily true is that Washington is spending it wisely, as the recent experience with the Obama stimulus amply demonstrates. [Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the economy. ]

Taking a view contrary to Buffett's is Charles G. Koch, the chairman and CEO of Koch Industries. A strong supporter of the free market and the bane of liberals everywhere, Koch suggests that "much of what the government spends money on does more harm than good; this is particularly true over the past several years with the massive uncontrolled increase in government spending. I believe my business and non-profit investments are much more beneficial to societal well-being than sending more money to Washington."

Also siding with Koch is Harvey Golub, the former chairman and CEO of American Express, who wrote in Monday's Wall Street Journal about the basic unfairness of the current system. "Today, top earners—the 250,000 people who earn $1 million or more—pay 20 percent of all income taxes, and the 3 percent who earn more than $200,000 pay almost half. Almost half of all filers pay no income taxes at all," Golub wrote.

Of course having almost half of all filers paying no income tax at all makes it easier to develop and maintain the political machine necessary to give so many people an effective free ride. The wealth is being spread around, as candidate Barack Obama promised he would while the pain is concentrated, leaving far too many people without any sense of responsibility for the government we all agree we can no longer afford.

"Do we really need dozens of retraining programs with no measure of performance or results? Do we really need to spend money on solar panels, windmills and battery-operated cars when we have ample energy supplies in this country? Do we really need all the regulations that put an estimated $2 trillion burden on our economy by raising the price of things we buy? Do we really need subsidies for domestic sugar farmers and ethanol producers?" Golub asks, all of which are good questions. [See an opinion slide show of 10 wasteful stimulus projects. ]

As has been said for many years what America needs is a fairer, flatter, simpler tax code. The current system inhibits growth, chases jobs out of the country and keeps America from being all it can be. If Mr. Buffett would like to pay more into the United States Treasury—rather than sheltering it in nonprofit foundations and charitable projects—he is free to do so. For the rest of us, as Golub wrote, the government should raise the $2.2 trillion it already collects each year "more fairly and spend it more wisely." That's the real way to solve the nation's financial problems.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.
  • Read 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Bush Tax Cuts.
  • Vote now: Who won the debt ceiling standoff?