Suppose that an investor you admire and trust comes to you with an investment idea. "This is a good one," he says enthusiastically. "I'm in it, and I think you should be, too." Would your reply possibly be this? "Well, it all depends on what my tax rate will be on the gain you're saying we're going to make. If the taxes are too high, I would rather leave the money in my savings account, earning a quarter of 1 percent." Only in Grover Norquist's imagination does such a response exist.
Only in all their imaginations does such a response exist. I can say with near certainty that anyone on the Right that says they do this or has known people to act in this fashion is lying. As Mr. Buffett has said many times previously, people invest to make money. Government tax policy doesn't enter into it.
And facts are facts...
Between 1951 and 1954, when the capital gains rate was 25 percent and marginal rates on dividends reached 91 percent in extreme cases, I sold securities and did pretty well. In the years from 1956 to 1969, the top marginal rate fell modestly, but was still a lofty 70 percent -- and the tax rate on capital gains inched up to 27.5 percent. I was managing funds for investors then.
Never did anyone mention taxes as a reason to forgo an investment opportunity I offered. Under those burdensome rates, moreover, both employment and the gross domestic product (a measure of the nation's economic output) increased at a rapid clip. The middle class and the rich alike gained ground.
They both gained ground because there was less inequality. The money that was used from the higher tax revenues paid for investments in infrastructure and education (the GI Bill, for example). This, in turn, led to a higher skilled labor force and an economy that was robust and innovative. This is not the case today.
The group's average income in 2009 was $202 million -- which works out to a "wage" of $97,000 per hour, based on a 40-hour workweek. (I'm assuming they're paid during lunch hours.) Yet more than a quarter of these ultrawealthy paid less than 15 percent of their take in combined federal income and payroll taxes. Half of this crew paid less than 20 percent. And -- brace yourself -- a few actually paid nothing.
This is how money has been transferred upwards as Stiglitz mentions in "The Price of Inequality."
So what does Warren think should be done about this?
We need Congress, right now, to enact a minimum tax on high incomes. I would suggest 30 percent of taxable income between $1 million and $10 million, and 35 percent on amounts above that. A plain and simple rule like that will block the efforts of lobbyists, lawyers and contribution-hungry legislators to keep the ultrarich paying rates well below those incurred by people with income just a tiny fraction of ours. Only a minimum tax on very high incomes will prevent the stated tax rate from being eviscerated by these warriors for the wealthy.
And what will the result be?
Our government's goal should be to bring in revenues of 18.5 percent of GDP and spend about 21 percent of GDP -- levels that have been attained over extended periods in the past and can clearly be reached again. As the math makes clear, this won't stem our budget deficits; in fact, it will continue them. But assuming even conservative projections about inflation and economic growth, this ratio of revenue to spending will keep America's debt stable in relation to the country's economic output.
I agree and, as Warren notes, this will involve major concessions by the Right and the Left. All sides in this debate have signaled a willingness to bend so I do have some hope.
And what about that figment of the Right's imagination who is overly obsessed with "uncertainty?"
In the meantime, maybe you'll run into someone with a terrific investment idea, who won't go forward with it because of the tax he would owe when it succeeds. Send him my way. Let me unburden him.
Maybe I should send ol' DJ from TSM to Mr. Buffett...hee hee...:)