Usually you don’t get an overwhelming positive response when someone writes in to the New York Times to complain that he has too much money.
“Why aren’t you using it to jet your child to summer camp?” we ask. “Or have you given up on reading those Times trend pieces too, after the eighty-fifth declaration that pie is the new skinny jeans?”
If the overwhelming social response to Warren Buffett’s piece in the Times suggesting that the Super Rich need to pay more taxes has showed us anything, it is that we agree with Warren Buffett that Warren Buffett has too much money, and that we don’t know how to spell his name.
After a certain point, having more money than you know what to do with can be something of a burden. You glance over at cash-strapped entities like the United States, shaking a cup outside China, and slowly shake your head. “I really wish there were something I could do,” you say. “But the tax code is too proud to ask for more, and it’s not as though I can just give it to them.” You frown. “I suppose I could donate it to Mitt Romney,” you murmur thoughtfully.
You have been doing all you can. You have been powering the luxury economy until you’ve run out of things to gild and monogram. But yachts and private jets are like children. After the fifth or sixth they start to blur together and become a drain on your resources, and you begin to give them asinine names like Woof and Triple-Todd.
I’ve mentioned the temporarily embarrassed millionaire problem before. It’s why Americans don’t like socialism, John Steinbeck said, because “the poor here see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
“Maybe that’s just Warren Buffett who wants to pay more taxes,” we say. “Maybe the money has gone to his head. Maybe if I had Warren Buffett’s money, I would want to cling to it or put it all into animatronic statues of Abraham Lincoln waving sexily. I can’t wait to find out once I get up out of this economic rut!”
But what about the millionaires? They seem pretty embarrassed as well — or rather, permanently mortified, if Warren Buffett is to be believed. “We really wish we could help out, but this tax code makes it impossible,” they mutter. “I own all the private jets I can take care of and now I’m just putting the money into gold bullion, although I worry that this is letting Glenn Beck win and I keep tripping over piles of gold when I try to get myself hot chocolate during the night.”
Perhaps if Warren Buffett is actively asking to pay more in taxes, we should think about it. He’s an all-purpose guru, that wealthy uncle who America keeps hoping will pass on and leave us his holdings. If only he could! But from those to whom much has been given, Buffett notes, only about 17.4 percent is required.
How to fix this? There’s the rub. It might mean raising taxes on a small percentage of the population, and this is the one thing you cannot do ever ever ever, even if Warren asks nicely, because Death and Famine and all the other horsemen of the Apocalypse (or is that just a very angry Grover Norquist?) will ride in and rampage across the land.
And we couldn’t have that.
“Ask the super-rich to pay more?” we ask. “But what if I become super-rich?”
It might be all right with Berkshire Hathaway. But it doesn’t sound like the American way! Now if only we could stop being so embarrassed.