An Empty Offer from the Super-Rich

Article excerpt

Byline: Gary Rivlin

It's easy for Mark Zuckerberg to say he's 'cool' with raising income-tax rates. Because it won't affect him.

It drives economist Bruce Bartlett crazy every time he hears another bazillionaire announce he's in favor of paying higher taxes. Most recently it was Mark Zuckerberg who got Bartlett's blood boiling when the Facebook founder declared himself "cool" with paying more in federal taxes, joining such tycoons as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, and even a stray hedge-fund manager or two.

Bartlett, a former member of the Reagan White House, isn't against the wealthy paying higher taxes. He's that rare conservative who thinks higher taxes need to be part of the deficit debate. His beef? It's a hollow gesture to say the federal government should raise the tax rate on the country's top wage earners when the likes of Zuckerberg have most of their wealth tied up in stock. Many of the super-rich see virtually all their income as capital gains, and capital gains are taxed at a much lower rate--15 percent--than ordinary income. When Warren Buffett talks about paying a lower tax rate than his secretary, that's because she sees most of her pay through a paycheck, while the bulk of his compensation comes in the form of capital gains and dividends. In 2006, for instance, Buffett paid 17.7 percent in taxes on the $46 million he booked that year, while his secretary lost 30 percent of her $60,000 salary to the government.

"It's easy to say 'Raise taxes' when you know you're not going to have to pay those taxes," Bartlett says. "What I don't hear is 'Let's raise the capital-gains tax.'" Instead the focus has been on the federal tax rate paid by those with an annual income of $250,000 or more--the top 3 percent of earners. Bartlett argues that while raising taxes on the country's richest individuals would go a long way in easing the debt crisis, it makes no sense to treat the professional making a few hundred thousand dollars a year the same as the Richie Rich set. Maybe it's hard to muster sympathy for an executive pulling down $1 million a year. But ours is a tax system where a person in the top tax bracket (those earning more than $374,000 in 2010) pays a tax rate of 35 percent on the upper portions of his or her income (37. …