The other day, Blunt Truth Teller Chris Christie gave Warren Buffett a little bit of advice, Jersey style. Christie suggested that rather than try and engage the nation in a conversation about inequality and tax unfairness, he should “just write a check and shut up.”
Today, Buffett hit back:
“It’s sort of a touching response to a $1.2 trillion deficit, isn’t it? That somehow the American people will all send in checks and take care of it?” Buffett said in an interview on CNBC...
Buffett said Christie’s comments were not “eloquent” and largely parroted a similar call from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“It’s sort of astounding to me that somebody that has the responsibility for being the minority leader in the Senate would think that you attack a $1.2 trillion or so deficit by asking for voluntary contributions,” Buffett said.
Well, yes, it is amazing that public officials in positions of real influence and responsibility continue to repeat this line with no evident sense of embarrassment. But the “just shut up and write a check” argument is also about playing on phony notions of liberal elitism and hypocrisy. It’s about suggesting that wealthy Democrats, or wealthy supporters of Democrats, aren’t really willing to put their money where their mouths are; they just want to bash the rich even as they enjoy the benefits of being rich themselves. You hear accents of this in the constant attacks on Elizabeth Warren as a “hypocrite” because she calls for higher taxes on the rich, even though she’s also wealthy.
The thing is, though, that Buffett and Warren are calling for policy changes that would have a negative financial impact on themselves as well as other members of their class. This is not elitist or hypocritical. In fact, at bottom, it’s actually self-deprecating. They are arguing that they don’t deserve all the credit for getting rich; their good fortune was partly enabled by a society that’s supported by taxpayers, leaving people like them with a moral responsibility to chip in more if necessary to keep that society functioning. Given the depth of our problem, Buffett points out, it’s not enough if he writes a check; his whole class needs to sacrifice a bit more.
The basic argument Buffett and Warren are making goes back at least as far as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in a 1935 address to Congress said:
“People know that vast personal incomes come not only through the effort or ability or luck of those who receive them, but also because of the opportunities for advantage which government itself contributes. Therefore, the duty rests upon the government to restrict such incomes by very high taxes.”
The “restrict such incomes” language is not quite what you’d hear today, and we’re not even talking about “very high taxes,” but the basic thrust remains the same. And coming from the likes of Buffett, that’s a hard argument for opponents to rebut or to dismiss as “class warfare.” Which may help explain why their response is: “Just shut up.”
UPDATE: Post edited slightly for clarity.