As a Depression baby, I grew up liking poor people better
than I liked rich people. I suppose it was partly because there were
many more poor people in our Baptist church than there were rich
people, and the poor majority's favorite Bible verse was the one in
chapter 6, verse 20 of St. Luke that quotes Jesus saying: "Blessed
be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God."
I suppose there are Biblical passages that say nice things
about rich folks too, but we never talked about them in our church.
My father, who was born and grew up in an honest-to-God
sodhouse, probably had something to do with my anti-rich prejudice.
It wasn't that my father wouldn't like to become a little rich
himselfat least rich enough that he might be able to buy a new
Buick. And in 1940 he did. A brand new Buick that he went to Flint,
Michigan to buy right off the assembly line.
He had it for nearly a month before he wrecked it while he
was showing his buddies how fast it would go. He was tooling along
just ahead of his buddy, the county sheriff, when he came up over a
slightly elevated spot on the dirt road where the other side was
occupied by a heard of cattle who had decided that it was time to
cross the road.
My father wasn't badly hurt but the Buick was a mess. And
he was chided for driving too fast by the richest of the Baptist
church congregation. Which made our whole family decide that moneyed
folks weren't very likeable. And my mother decided that my father
should become somewhat like Miniver Cheevy, the title character in a
poem written by E.A. Robinson nearly a century ago:
"Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it."
But I digress. All that reminiscence came to mind a
couple of weeks ago when Warren Buffett, the second most richest man
in America. testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee in
defense of the federal estate tax. That's a tax on inherited wealth
and it's been around since 1916. President Bushand others who are
in line to inherit big buckswant to do away with it.
They call it the death tax.
It's the kind of tax that English majors don't need to
worry too much about because the vast majority of us won't leave an
estate of $2 million or more, the point at which the current estate
tax kicks in.
But people like Warren Buffett, whose estate is currently
worth about $52 billion, second only to the estate of Bill Gates,
would pay a whole lot.
And get this: he's all in favor of doing it.
The Truth, Mainly
Here's what ticks Buffett off: he was taxed at 17.7
percent on the $46 million he made last year. But his secretary, who
earned $60,000 last year, was taxed at 30 percent of her income.
Andare you ready for this?he's not ticked off because he had to
pay more than she did. He's ticked off because his tax was based on
barely half the percentage as his secretary's was.
He told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee that "I think we
take a little more out of the hides of guys like me."
And he said that the richest among us "pay a lower part of
our income than our receptionists do, or our cleaning ladies, for
that matter. If you're in the luckiest 1 percent of humanity, you
owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent."
This from a guy who still lives in an Omaha house that he
paid $31,500 for in 1958.
How many billionaires do you know who are willing to
protest their secretaries being taxed at a greater percentage of
their income than the billionaires are taxed?
It's enough to give even an English major the fantods.
And it moved Buffett to tell the Senate Finance Committee that
"Dynastic wealth, the enemy of meritocracy, is on the
.Equality of Opportunity has been on the decline. A
progressive and meaningful estate tax is needed to curb the movement
of a democracy toward plutocracy."
And when Republican Chairman Charles Grassley said that
"the death tax" was "fundamentally wrong," Buffett said that the use
of "death tax" was "intellectually dishonest" and "clever, Orwellian,
and dead wrong."
Tough Talk, but that's what you're asking for when you
cross your understanding of how money works with the understanding of
someone called the Oracle of Omaha.
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail