Buffett's Estate-Tax Vision Isn't Charitable

By John Tamny

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett came to Washington this week in hopes of convincing Congress to maintain the estate tax. To his way of thinking, repeal would merely aid a handful of the richest families, all the while creating in this country what he deems “a dynastic plutocracy.”

What’s forgotten here is that the rich, directly or indirectly, surely pass on their wealth and knowledge to those outside their immediate family. On the education front, one need only visit the local university to see the monuments to past financial successes that accrue to students of varying economic origins. Though Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin themselves inherited no significant wealth, by virtue of their matriculation to Stanford University, both received educations greatly enhanced by the largesse of past graduates.

Notably, the benefits didn’t end there. When Page and Brin founded Google, Stanford’s flush endowment, one funded largely by donations from its graduates, stepped up with a portion of the seed capital that they used to start the business. That Google’s creation was even a possibility is directly related to previous technological innovations that enabled them to build a computer-search concept that is presently a market behemoth.

Scientist Isaac Newton is well-known to have said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Today’s billionaire entrepreneurs, be they replicators or innovators, very certainly stand tall for what yesterday’s successes bequeathed to them in terms of knowledge and capital.

Buffet argues that in the last twenty years the tax-laws have helped the “super-rich” get richer, while “the average American went exactly nowhere on the economic scale.” Good rhetoric for sure, but the “super-rich” of today were for the most part not pictured in any snapshot of the super-wealthy 20 years ago. Proof of the latter comes from the latest Forbes 400, which showed that of its initial 400 members, only 32 remain.

Buffett suggests that we should re-phrase what some call the “death tax” to what he would term the “death present,” but rich and poor alike should not let Buffett’s revised definition confuse the issue. When we tax the surplus wealth of the rich, we put a bull’s-eye on the not-yet-rich. Those still eager to reach millionaire (or in Buffett’s case billionaire) status rely on the savings of others in the form of higher wages, plus when they seek to do as Brin and Page did and start a company, they rely on the savings of the Warren Buffetts of the world to fund their economy-enhancing ideas.

Too often today it’s said that the rich “give back” only when they hand over their money to all manner of charities. Taking nothing away from the obvious good that comes from charitable giving, even if both the new and old rich were to hoard every cent earned or inherited free of the greedy hand of government, they’d be giving back in spades for the certainty that their capital would serve as investment in tomorrow’s entrepreneurial ideas; ones that will potentially enrich tomorrow’s visionaries in ways that will make today’s wealthy seem small by comparison.

Though Buffett’s motives are perhaps pure in suggesting that, “We need to raise about 20 percent of GDP to fund the programs the American people want from the federal government,” and that we need to do this while removing the tax burden on those making less than $20,000 per year, in making this assertion he seems to be saying aid, rather than incentives, is what drives economic advancement. That the underclass he champions grew so substantially in the 1960s once government aid became a greater reality doesn’t seem to concern him.

Ignoring for now the often enervating impact of government handouts, to the extent that marginal rates of taxation on estates and income must rise to fund the governmental generosity he desires, they negatively impact the capital reliant economic advances that improve the opportunities of tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. Incentives matter, so any discussion of taxpayer-funded handouts should be analyzed in light of how long the productive class will work and reveal its income just to see it redistributed in unproductive ways.

Since new and innovative ideas are ultimately funded by capital and past advances, it’s almost tautological to say that the surest way to lift all boats is to remove the barriers to wealth formation that already exist. Done right, productive work effort will rise in a way that expands a capital and knowledge base that will allow the next generation to accomplish even more.

Wealth creation is ultimately the result of hard work and knowledge being matched with capital. So to the extent that Buffett is correct about the less fortunate being on what he deems a “treadmill to nowhere,” the surest way to halt such a trend would be to reduce the penalties on wealth in a way that would make more investment available to more people. Buffett could, of course, hand all of his wealth over to the federal government, but if he does, no one should mistake his actions for charity.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets and Forbes Opinions, a senior economic adviser to H.C. Wainwright Economics, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.

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