Taxing Millionaires: Obama’s Buffett Rule

By :: April 11th, 2013

From the start of his 2008 campaign, President Obama has called for raising taxes on the rich. He got much but not all that he wanted in the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) earlier this year. Now his FY2014 budget takes another couple of bites at that apple.

The first repeats his proposal to cap at 28 percent the value of itemized deductions and specified exclusions, which would raise $530 billion over ten years. The president has pushed this idea in each of his five budgets, expanding it last year to include selected exclusions ranging from interest on municipal bonds to employer-paid health insurance premiums.

This year’s new wrinkle would extend the limitation to some taxpayers with income below Obama’s threshold for being rich—$250,000 for couples and $200,000 for singles. That will surely elicit howls from Obama’s critics on the left and the right, but it does recognize implicitly the budgetary need to raise taxes on more than just the top 2 percent of households.

Obama’s other bite on the rich is a Buffett Rule that would ensure that high-income households pay at least a minimum percentage of their income in taxes. Until now, the president has only spoken aspirationally about this idea. But his budget includes a concrete plan, dubbed the Fair Share Tax, or FST, that would collect $53 billion over ten years (and $99 billion if Congress doesn’t raise taxes on the rich with the 28 percent cap).

Obama’s goal is to keep the rich from taking advantage of tax preferences that allow them to pay low effective tax rates. Billionaire Warren Buffett raised this issue with stories about his secretary paying a higher tax rate than he does, and it resurfaced during the 2012 presidential campaign amid complaints about Mitt Romney’s 13 percent effective income tax rate.

But it turns out that setting a floor on the taxes rich people pay is not so easy. It is complicated and messy, and might not even accomplish its intended goal.

The FST would be a new minimum tax that requires rich taxpayers to pay at least 30 percent of their adjusted gross income (AGI) in federal taxes, with the rule phasing in between $1 million and $2 million of AGI (indexed for inflation).

But it would have exceptions. To protect charitable contributions, affected taxpayers could claim a credit equal to 28 percent of their deductible gifts. They could also count any alternative minimum tax liability, the 3.8 percent Obamacare tax on investment income, and the employee share of payroll taxes toward the 30 percent minimum tax.

And there are at least two other problems. First, the rich—particularly those who benefit from reduced tax rates on dividend and capital gains income—pay a disproportionate share of the corporate income tax, which is not included in the Buffett Rule calculation. TPC estimates that the corporate tax boosts the effective tax rate of the highest-income 1 percent by 7.5 percentage points, more than five times the rate for the bottom 90 percent. Excluding that tax understates the taxes the rich already pay.

But worse, the FST would be a new alternative tax with all of the problems of the one we have now. If the president does not like the fact that certain tax preferences allow rich people to pay less tax, he should reform the preferences, not layer on another tax of people who use them. That not only complicates the tax code but also makes the whole system less transparent.

We can disagree about whether Congress should raise more revenue and, if so, whether it should do so by raising taxes on the rich. But even if you think the answer to both question is yes, adding another minimum tax is not the way to do it.


  1. ND  ::  12:08 pm on April 11th, 2013:

    This is true and the problem that Buffett illustrated comes in part the (a) overtaxing of 2-earner marrieds and singles to subsidize sole breadwinners and (b) the way high wage earners carry all the burden of the progressivity in benefits in Social Security and Medicare (there is no capital/property-earner tax at all).

    There is also a problem of regressivity in taxation within marriage.

  2. ND  ::  12:10 pm on April 11th, 2013:

    In addition to the problem Buffett illustrated comes from subsidies to capital/property-earners in the low capital gains rate, the low carried interest tax rate, etc.

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  6. Ralph H  ::  10:17 am on April 12th, 2013:

    The Buffett rule illustrates why the tax code is a mess. On the face, the intent seems reasonable (just like the AMT did many years ago). All the rules which must be added make it messy, complicated, and will add complexity to preparation. Ultimately, long after Mr Buffett is in the ground and Mr Obama is a faint memory we will rewrite a correction.

  7. What’s the Mix of Spending and Revenue in the President’s Deficit Reduction Proposal? | Donald Marron  ::  3:43 pm on April 12th, 2013:

    […] $580 billion (revenue from limiting tax breaks for high-income taxpayers and implementing a “Buffett Rule”) or $680 billion (adding in the revenue that would come from using chained CPI to index […]

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    […] $580 billion (revenue from limiting tax breaks for high-income taxpayers and implementing a “Buffett Rule”) or $680 billion (adding in the revenue that would come from using chained CPI to index […]

  9. Lucky  ::  9:02 pm on April 13th, 2013:

    The property tax discriminates against a class of people, property owners, and fails to tax many of those who use our roads, bridges, water, hospitals, schools, parks, and services. This includes people from outside of Cobb County who work and shop here, and illegal aliens,” . The property tax is also subjective, complex and costly to administer, with, for example, two identical houses next to each other potentially being assessed at different values due to foreclosures, short sales, or auctions. The property tax should be replaced with nothing. A sales tax is bad to. The first of the 10 planks of “The Communist Manifesto” is the abolition of private property and the application of all rents of land to public purposes. this is done at the federal level through eminent domain and such agencies as the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Defense, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others. At the local level, there are school and property taxes as well as eminent domain. “Who owns your land if government can control what you can and cannot do on your land? And who owns your land if it can be taxed away from you?” “Who would want to buy your land once the government has decreed that it cannot be used for commercial or recreational purposes?” The federal government owns 30 percent of the land in the 50 states, or about 650 million acres. “I would personally like to eliminate the entire property tax for both individuals and businesses, because it would better protect our private property rights, broaden our tax base, lower our total taxes, and bring more businesses and jobs to Cobb County,”

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  11. Michael Bindner  ::  5:18 pm on June 26th, 2013:

    The real way to raise taxes on people like Buffett is to shift the employer contribution to FICA to a consumption tax and eliminate any caps – thus it taxes all of profit and labor with no limit. By definition, this would increase the taxes Buffett pays while taking a tax burden away from his secretary – or at least taxing them both at the same rate. Note that while collections would be even, crediting would be dollar averaged, so the secretary would win out big time.

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