by Victor Davis Hanson
It is odd for a newspaper in unsigned editorials to go after a writer. But the Monterey Herald has done that on occasion with me, and with the usual ad hominem tactics and failure to offer a rebuttal, which seem at odds with basic journalistic ethics. Here is the latest with brief commentary:
Real tax talk is needed
The Monterey County Herald
Posted: 08/24/2011 01:45:06 AM PDT
When someone as rich and influential as Warren Buffett speaks, most people listen, especially others who are rich and influential. But Buffett’s recent New York Times column, in which he opined that the nation would be better off if he and the similarly situated were taxed at higher rates, has been dismissed by the right wing think tanks and others whose job description apparently is to protect the rich from the rest of us.
The Hoover Institution’s chief saber rattler, Victor Davis Hanson, didn’t even wait for Buffett’s column. He went proactive a week earlier with an argument so simplistic that it becomes apparent that the protectors of the rich are running out of ammunition.
Here are some excerpts, with some of the verbosity trimmed away:
“About every month or so either a politician — a Barack Obama or John Kerry — or a billionaire — a Bill Gates Jr. & Sr. or Warren Buffett — or a celebrity — a Matt Damon — pontificates about the need for some sort of higher taxes, as if we are supposed to be in awe over such professed magnanimity. Usually the narrative goes one of two ways: ‘I wouldn’t mind paying more taxes’ or ‘My secretary pays more taxes than do I.’
“These apologies insult our intelligence, since the boaster either makes so much money that he would not notice whether he paid 35 percent or 39 percent on his income…
“Of course, the very wealthy who rant about higher taxes simply could pay higher taxes…The media would love Matt Damon if he were paying 70percent in taxes on his income. Indeed, he could start a movement to shame other Hollywood celebrities, who then could shame CEOs, who then in turn could shame the rich in general. Or alternatively, the very wealthy who feel under-taxed simply could donate directly to their own favorite government program — a Head Start, solar power subsidy, or food stamp program.”
That’s the best this darling of the rich right could come up with? If he thinks he should pay more taxes, then he should go ahead.
Brilliant. If it seems like you’ve heard or read that suggestion before, it’s because you have. In dozens of letters to the editor over the years, letters written by earnest people who meant what they said but who were not paid big bucks to come up with ideas either original or profound, preferably both.
Signaling a potential shift in the national thought processes, Hanson’s response has typified the reaction from the better board rooms: Buffett should just write a bigger check.
Here’s hoping the feeble counterattack means that Buffett’s words will help lead the nation into a new and meaningful conversation about taxes, a discussion that goes well beyond the “no new taxes” chants of the Grover Norquist followers. The rich and their front men have managed to make the conversation about the poor and the working class, vilifying them for paying relatively little tax and preventing people from noticing that the tax rate for the super rich in this country averages about 18 percent — not the 35 or 39 percent that Hanson suggests.
Buffett, by the way, pays around 18 percent, far less than any of his employees.
No, Victor, Buffett’s secretary doesn’t pay more taxes than her boss does, but her tax rate is less than half of his.
Note again the unprofessional ad hominem tone, quite unbefitting a newspaper: “The Hoover Institution’s chief saber rattler” or “protectors of the rich” or “this darling of the rich right,” or “front men,” or “but who were not paid big bucks to come up with ideas either original or profound.” Such anonymous invective and cheap emotion in lieu of logical argumentation are simply beneath a reputable newspaper, and once again the Herald should know better and be ashamed.
For the record, I live by choice in a rural area of the poorest quadrant of one of the poorest counties in the Central Valley of California, a world away from Monterey. My interest is not with the “rich,” but jobs for the non-rich (unemployment in my home town hovers at 20%). I live with “the poor and the working class” and their lot has gotten far worse since 2008 as jobs have disappeared and even generous state entitlements have now become unsustainable and are being cut back, as too many taxpayers flee the state and revenues nosedive. Whether George Soros, John Kerry, Al Gore, or Warren Buffett fly a little more quickly in their private jets than I do in coach, or whether their hot water comes out of designer faucets and mine does not, or whether their Mercedes or BMW is quieter than my quite adequate Honda concerns me not at all.
The Herald deliberately did not address the chief point of my essay: My worry is instead with those creating most of the jobs who make between $200-$500,000. They represent about 5% of the tax filers and pay about 60% of the income taxes (about 50% of Americans pay no income tax and are thus not directly vested in income tax questions). They are not hiring in fear of higher taxes, rich/poor class warfare rhetoric, worry over new regulations, and rising fuel and energy costs — and that hesitation hurts poorer millions as we see with near nonexistent growth, a declining stock market, a 9.1% unemployment rate, near record low consumer confidence, record annual deficits and aggregate debt, and soaring fuel and food costs. Does the Herald not see that a red-state Texas or the Dakotas does not experience the stasis of the Illinois/New York/California blue-state model, in the manner a Germany or Netherlands does not suffer from the insolvency of a far more liberal tax-and-spend Mediterranean Europe? Did California’s 10% income tax rate, 10% sales tax rate, and record gas tax rates ensure that the problems of infrastructure (crumbling), education (near bottom in national test score rankings), crime (record numbers of inmates with record costs per inmate) and entitlements (among the most generous and the most endangered) were addressed far better than elsewhere with lower tax rates? Are job-employers arriving to, or leaving a naturally beautiful California in preference to a cold Utah, North and South Dakota or arid Texas?
Again, note the absence of any rebuttal to my original contention. Why does Warren Buffett simply not pay at the income tax rate, rather than at the capital gains rate, as do most of those who make over $200,000 who do not have his options? And why, given his belief that our debt problem is found in a lack of revenue rather than in wasteful and counterproductive government spending, did he assign his own fortune of nearly $50 billion to a private foundation rather than to a more benevolent and wise government to disperse as it saw fit, especially inasmuch he will deprive the community of billions in lost inheritance tax revenue? (And why invest heavily in life-insurance companies while advocating hiked inheritance taxes, when the former’s profits so often depend on the latter?)
So the Herald does not address the chief point of my argument: that the super-rich are different from the upper-middle-class; they often make arguments for higher taxes usually when they reach the point of being super-rich, not while struggling and ascendant, at least in part apparently because higher taxation levels do not really affect their ample income in a way it might the family dentist, electrical contractor, or computer sales manager who, whether logically or due to emotion, so often reacts to a redistributive agenda like that of the last three years by not hiring another receptionist, another electrician, or another sales rep.
And finally, should we laugh or cry when the liberal Herald starts out with “When someone as rich and influential as Warren Buffett speaks, most people listen.” I guess I’m not “most.” You see, I don’t listen to someone, right or left, based on whether they are “rich and influential,” but rather whether their ideas seem logical and well presented. In the case of Warren Buffett, his wealth and media exposure, as with a George Soros or Al Gore, mean less than nothing to me. I would rather listen to hundreds in Selma and Fowler who own tractor repair shops, oil driveways, and sell pesticides but who daily make far more sense than do Buffett and the “rich and influential” who live lives that do not match their advocacy.
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson