In a Washington Post article titled A millionaire for higher taxes, Whitney Tilson perfectly illustrated why rich people, particularly rich Americans, particularly Americans that got rich managing hedge funds, i.e., by shuffling around other people’s money for a handsome percentage of the take and a generous management fee as he did, are generally so loathsome. His article is so bad, until it should be parsed, bit by bit. Here goes:
I am part of the 1 percent of the 1 percent. By that I mean that I am fortunate to be a wealthy American and I say, “It’s okay to raise my taxes.”
What he meant: I am part of this exclusive club to which you mere mortals only enviously wish you belonged. As Americans only measure wealth in material terms, I am one of those people whom Americans believe to be wealthy. As such, I am especially well-positioned to condescend to urge that my taxes be increased. Urging this sort of sacrifice upon me by me shows how magnanimous, in addition to all my well-deserved wealth, I truly am. It is another of my endearing qualities. You can now admire me for more than just my ridiculously self-indulgent lifestyle and high opinion of myself.
This morning I was at the White House supporting President Obama in his call for Congress to pass the “Buffett rule.” This legislation — inspired in part by Warren Buffett’s exasperation upon learning that his assistant paid a greater percentage of her income in federal taxes than he did — would require anyone whose income exceeds $1 million a year to pay a minimum 30 percent in taxes. It would hit me hard. I haven’t finished my taxes for 2011, but in 2010, my federal tax rate was 21.4 percent; if the Buffett rule had been in effect, my federal tax bill would have been 40 percent higher. Some years, my taxes would probably be more than 50 percent higher.
See, I am so generous that I condescend to support the lowly President of these United States. You probably have heard of Warren Buffett, and maybe haven’t heard of me before this article, so I’ll drop Buffett’s name as if I’m like him. I mention that I haven’t finished my taxes, as if I actually sit down at the computer with a copy of TurboTax and fill in the blanks upon their prompted queries. Of course, that’s not the way it works. I have a white shoe accounting firm that does my taxes for me, for which I pay handsomely, so I can maximize every deduction and minimize my tax bill, so I pay the least amount in tax possible. Yet, I plead with you, urge you, that no matter how painful it might be, make me pay more tax. I can’t force myself to do it to myself. It is a weakness of mine that I am revealing here to you today, that should also endear me to your heart. I really am good, it’s the tax code that makes me bad.
It’s not class warfare to say that people like me — who aren’t suffering at all in these tough economic times, who are in many cases doing the best we’ve ever done and who can easily afford to pay more in taxes with no impact on our lifestyle — should be the first to step up and make a small sacrifice.
I’m not supposed to say it, but man, I have made a fucking killing by shuffling other people’s money offshore so that the economics of international labor arbitrage can rob middle class Americans of jobs and incomes. And I’m beginning to get concerned that this whole thing is gonna bite me on the butt–how can I keep all this money earned off the sweat of peasants willing to work for $2/day, while right down the street, in neighborhoods I pass through on the way to my luxuriously appointed offices, the swell of people who can’t even afford what a peasant can make thousands of in a day’s labor grows every day? Maybe if I look like I’m not so selfish and repugnant as it appears, maybe if I look like I’m willing to voluntarily sacrifice for the common weal, the common man won’t stick my neck in the guillotine when the chickens I’ve helped hatch come home to roost.
I think most people agree with the idea of shared sacrifice, but for many, when push comes to shove, that principle goes out the window. I don’t kid myself that I’m making any real sacrifices. The men and women who have been fighting for the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan — thousands of them coming home in coffins or missing limbs — are making true sacrifices. And when they enter the domestic workforce, they shouldn’t have to pay taxes at a significantly higher rate than the vast majority of millionaires pay.
Though I claim not to equate my offer of sacrificing for the common good with the troops that are protecting my ability to send capital anywhere in the world it can make a smidgen more money, usually because the labor is cheaper and the environment more readily exploitable, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Usually the places I send other people’s money are so poor the people would willingly work suicidal hours just to ensure American companies like Apple can reap enormous profits. But the whole gig depends on my client’s property rights being defended at the point of an American bayonet. By mentioning the troops here, I’m not acknowledging the profound depth to which my capitalist impulses depend upon them. I’m equating my proposed sacrifice with theirs. Though I disclaim a connection with them and me, I’m trusting you’ll get it anyway. There’s nothing more powerful these days than wrapping one’s imperatives in the sacrifices of the troops. Hey, I didn’t get rich because I was stupid.
Some critics of the Buffett rule point out that it would raise only an estimated $47 billion over 10 years, which is a sliver of the 2011 deficit of $1.3 trillion, let alone the national debt of $15.6 trillion. They’re right that this, by itself, won’t be enough. But we have to start raising money somewhere, and if it isn’t from people like me, it will have to come from people less fortunate than I am. Think of it this way: Every billion dollars not raised from millionaires is equal to a million average U.S. families each paying an extra $1,000 in taxes. That would be real hardship for a lot of families that, unlike mine, are struggling to make ends meet.
Just as this article is nothing more than a selfish means of garnering attention, the Buffett rule is nothing more than a way to pretend rich people have some altruistic idea of what citizenship means. It is another strategy for me to prove that indeed, I am different from you.
Other critics argue that there’s no need for anyone to pay more taxes, because our government is so ineffective and wasteful that we can generate the savings we need just by running it better. I disagree. While there’s always plenty of room for improvement, our government is actually quite effective and efficient. Our military and judicial systems and national parks are the best in the world. Unlike in countries where government corruption is rampant, I’ve never once been solicited for a bribe. And our police departments generally do a good job protecting citizens. My wife and I walk our dog in Central Park every night after 10 p.m. and have never feared for our safety.
Have you ever been solicited for a bribe? No, I suppose not. Without something valuable at stake, there is no reason anyone would ever offer to grease the wheels of justice for you. But see, I am like you. I own a dog. I have a wife. We walk in Central Park after dark. But I’m still not like you. You don’t live near enough to Central Park to take nightly walks in it.
I think that most people who complain about our government have no idea what they’re talking about because they’ve never been to a country with a bad government. I regularly visit Kenya (my parents retired there and my sister works there), I visited Ethiopia many times when my parents lived there, and growing up I lived for three years each in Tanzania and Nicaragua. So I’ve seen what life is like under corrupt, dysfunctional, underfunded governments. To quote Hobbes, it can be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
You don’t really understand how important it is to have a stable government willing to assist people like me in money-making endeavors–one that is not overly concerned with self-enrichment. Thankfully, our politicians are almost as rich as I am, and are more powerful, so needn’t be so concerned with blatantly corrupt endeavors, Solyndra, et al, excepted. Of course, you might be coming around to the idea that they and I are rich because the whole system is so corrupt that it’s impossible to see the contrast. But you ought to see what things are like when countries whose governments are as corrupt as ours rule over an economic and political system not so rich as ours. It’s really bad, I’ve got to tell you. You should be duly impressed by my worldly perspective, that I’m pretty sure your provincial Americanism has not provided you. I’m throwing in an overwrought quote from Hobbes just to let you know that though I am one of those “mass men” Albert Jay Nock spoke of in his memoirs, concerned primarily with satisfying the urges of my gut and my loins through relentless acquisition of things I don’t need just for the sake of having them, I still can read, and quote people who others think are smart.
I am grateful for the effective government we have in this country, which is the absolutely necessary foundation for our wonderful capitalistic economic system that has benefited me so greatly. And I’m willing to do my fair share — in fact, more than my fair share — to help rein in our deficits and put this country on a more sustainable path.
I’m mainly grateful that this country’s government is the hand-maiden of people like me–rapacious capitalists that relentlessly reduce the essence of human existence to grinding efficiencies. I’m willing to help because it helps me to get even richer, and I’ve a ways to go until I get so rich a political imperative is named after me. Everyone will have to sacrifice if I am to continue to get rich. By this symbolic gesture, I am simultaneously (and disingenuously) showing that I am willing to “sacrifice” and that I believe that the American government is something more than a tool for me and my cronies to exploit on our way to ever-increasing wealth.
~What a cad and a self-serving canard. But I imagine, from having met a few, that this guy is pretty close to average when it comes to hubris and narcissim among the rich. These are the kind of people for which the idea of schadenfreude was invented. You just can’t help but rejoice in their misfortune. Would that a real economic revolution would ensue that would have some heads like Tilson’s rolling.