Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Quote of the Week

Six months ago, Warren Buffett penned an op-ed in the New York Times talking about his apparently unquenchable desire to pay more in taxes--as long as everyone else in his income category was legally bound to do the same, of course. I was skeptical of Buffett's supposed altruism at the time, and I still am. I wrote then:
There's no law prohibiting you from opening your checkbook tomorrow, grabbing a pen, and writing a $1 billion check to the U.S. Treasury. If you really want to pay more in taxes, don't sit around waiting for the government to send you a bill--just send the damn check. 
Otherwise, it seems like for all your seemingly well-intentioned rhetoric, what you really want is for others to share in your "sacrifice". Your pleas seem genuine and heartfelt, but at the end of the day you know that you could very easily cut a check tomorrow and not bother to tell anyone about it. But that's not what you want. You want all the publicity, and to make a political statement, but you don't want to actually step up and pay more in taxes unless and until every other billionaire in the country is legally obligated to do the same. That's not heroic--that's cowardly. And that's why I don't buy into your hype. The real Warren Buffett wouldn't wait around for others to show him the way forward.
Now, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has jumped on the Buffett-bashing bandwagon (it's fun, isn't it, Chris?), saying largely the same thing that I said then. For his comments, Gov. Christie has earned this week's Quote of the Week honors.


"[Buffett] should just write a check and shut up. I'm tired of hearing about it. If he wants to give the government more money, he's got the ability to write a check -- go ahead and write it."
                          - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
Ultimately, people everywhere in this country are extremely good at spending other people's money--or at least lobbying to spend other people's money. I've been a bit amused this week with the local goings-on at UVA, where a group of students is staging a hunger strike as a way of demanding a "living wage" for all university employees.

That's fine and all, and it's in many ways a noble goal, but the reality is that a living wage for all employees will of course require an increase in tuition and fees (for all students, undergraduate or otherwise) or a decrease in salaries and wages for higher-paid faculty members. So if the students really want the employees to have a living wage, they could (and should) start by footing part of the bill themselves. Their next step could be to actually physically raise the money by asking other students to do the same, and asking faculty members to similarly contribute--a true, grassroots movement that requires (and receives) the input and buy-in of an entire community.

But instead, the students would prefer to simply lobby the university's gatekeepers, and hope that those gatekeepers will agree to then impose an increased cost on all community members, regardless of their position on the subject. That's of course a microcosm of what happens in Washington D.C. every day, and it's this type of culture that has led us to have such a wickedly indebted society.

If you want to pay more in taxes, go ahead, pay more in taxes. If you want university employees to make more money, raise some money and pay them. Either way, if you're going to ask other people to foot the bill for your latest pet project, ask them directly, not via some third party intermediary. Then maybe you'll have a better understanding of what your project actually costs, and how much you're asking your friends and colleagues to contribute. Separating the beneficiaries of a policy from those who will feel that policy's cost almost always leads to bad overall decision-making. Raise the money first, then spend it--not the other way around.

[CNN Money]

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