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The Buffett Rule: Tax for Millionaires

This article was written by in Featured, Taxes. 38 comments.

As a continuation of President Obama’s jobs proposal (economic stimulus) for curbing spending and increasing federal government revenue, the administration is taking a cue from famous investor, Warren Buffett. On many occasions, Buffett has claimed that wealthy Americans do not pay a fair share of the tax burden relative to their means to do so. In his famous example, Buffett describes his effective tax rate as being lower than his secretary’s.

Many wealthy people earn income through investing returns, not ordinary income, which are taxed at a rate of 15 percent rather than a marginal rate schedule with a maximum of 35 percent in 2011.

Warren BuffettCritics of Buffett’s outspoken desire to reform the tax code say that Buffett can help reduce the deficit by donating a portion of his net worth to the U.S. Treasury, as the government allows for such donations. Those who feel that Buffett’s comments, if they influence policy, could hurt them today or in the future say that Buffett could voluntarily not take deductions that lower his tax liability, but like a good capitalist, Buffett will continue to take advantage of every avenue the tax code provides his for saving money.

Economists have crunched the numbers to show that tax law changes fashioned after Buffett’s statements would not raise enough revenue to cover the gap between government spending and revenue, but there doesn’t seem to be any implication by the plan’s supporters that this would be the case; cutting back cable television service won’t allow a poor family to afford a house, but it’s still a beneficial change.

People who once respected Buffett’s investing prowess now call him a socialist, despite the fact he’s one of the most successful capitalists the modern world has seen. I have no interest in defending Buffett’s philosophies, but he is a literal capitalist, as through his company Berkshire Hathaway he provides the means in the form of capital for other companies to thrive. Like a good capitalist, Buffett invested $5 billion in a struggling bank, with conditions only he could negotiate, such as a significant discount on the investment and influence among management for operational decisions.

To take advantage of Warren Buffett’s name, the president is informally calling his tax-related measures the “Buffett Rule.” If I were Warren Buffett, I wouldn’t my name attached to a politically-charged discussion even if I believe in the core aspects of the proposal. Buffett doesn’t mind that his name is being used in such a manner and is publicly supporting the measure.

What’s included in the Buffett Rule

Simply put, the Buffett Rule is a minimum tax on taxpayers with an income over $1 million. This would replace the misdirected Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). The original purpose of the AMT was similar: wealthy households should pay a fair share of taxes. Over time, though, as the income range for middle class grew, the AMT was not automatically adjusted. The AMT began to hit an increasing number of families who would not consider themselves wealthy.

In addition, the Buffett Rule would limit the tax deductions available to families in this income range and end subsidies to major corporations such as oil companies.

Another key to the revenue portion of Obama’s proposal is to let the tax cuts enacted under President Bush expire for couples with incomes over $250,000. That’s not necessarily part of the Buffett Rule, and the proposal has been making the rounds since at least the beginning of Obama’s presidency.

A Congress unfriendly to tax increases will make passage of the Buffett Rule difficult. Wealthy families believe they are already paying their fair share of the tax burden and want to see low-income families pay more. According to the U.S. Census, the gap between the top and the bottom of the income scale has expanded to its widest point in history, and a situation in which both the rich and the poor feel the government unfairly discriminates against them will not lead to a solution.

The desired outcome in this case would be enough revenue to cover the government’s obligations plus the feeling among the systemically lower class that they have a fair opportunity to succeed and a feeling among the wealthy that they have an obligation to pay for a representative bulk of the country’s expenses.

Photo: Aaron Friedman

Updated September 20, 2011 and originally published September 19, 2011.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 wylerassociate

I’m all for ending corporate welfare & there are some good things to the buffett rule but the party of NO will kill this proposal.

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avatar 2 shellye

The only way Buffett is going to change the tax code is to run for Congress himself and create legislation to change it, then work to get the votes necessary to change it. Obama has tried every which way from Sunday to make Buffett part of his ‘team’ since he began his presidential campaign several years ago. And Buffett obviously wants nothing to do with politics.

Isn’t he part of some group that encourages giving away all their wealth? Obviously he doesn’t want to donate to the US Treasury. That charity isn’t worthy of his contribution, I guess… LOL

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avatar 3 cubiclegeoff

At least he can tell a charity how to spend the money, you can’t do that with the government.

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avatar 4 lynn

If you could tell the government where to put money, I would start a movement to donate 5.00 from everyone, simply put it in an account, check out which bills could be ‘snowballed’ and start paying debt. If it works for us this simply, it could work for them. No spider web like comments, rules, regulations, or any other trash. Just pay. Maybe 10.00 a person.

Life can be easy, if we wanted it to be.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

$5 x 300,000,000 people = $1.5 billion. That’s something like 8 hours of the nation’s deficit spending.

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avatar 6 lynn

Maybe so, but it’s a start. 20.00 would be more helpful. It’s the concept that’s important.

avatar 7 lynn

The federal budget has more zeros than our budgets do, but give me one reason the snowball effect can’t be applied to it.

avatar 8 Anonymous

I’d be embarrassed to have my name associated with a tax increase. Buffett has allowed himself to be a useful political tool, but more taxes only mean more spending, more crony capitalism, more payoffs to favored constituencies, more waste, fraud and abuse, and lower economic growth and fewer real jobs.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

The Democrats have 1 chance in the next 16 months to increase taxes and then their chances are gone for probably a decade. That is to let the Bush tax cuts expire in their entirety. It would bring in an extra 360 billion per year. Every single proposal that Obama or the Democrats have made in the last 2.5 years is dwarfed by that number. They have not proposed a single tax increase that brings in any meaningful amount of money. They are all simply attempts to punish people at the high end of the income spectrum. Those will not pass and by January 2013 the Republicans will control the Senate and any talk of Tax increases will be reserved for academic circles because there will be zero chance of them getting enacted.

The extension of the Bush tax cuts was for 2 years. They expire once again on Dec 31, 2012. The Democrats are in complete control of this tax cut. If they truly want more revenue they can get 5 times more than anything they have so far proposed. And all they have to do is just sit there and refuse to extend the Bush Tax cuts. Remember the Bush tax cuts are the tax cuts for the wealthy right? We have heard this repeatedly. If they truly believe that then their solution is easy. Let them expire. But alas, by their own numbers 82% of those tax cuts go to people they do not define as wealthy. So apparently 18% of a tax cut for the wealthy makes the entire tax cut for the wealthy when they talk about it but in practice they do not want anything to do with repealing the Bush tax cuts. In fact they love the Bush tax cuts. They might even love them more than the Republicans do.

So the Democrats have an easy path to increased tax revenues. It’s their only path. The only one that has any chance of happening for likely the next decade. And this path would actually bring in significant revenue. It would have a large impact on the deficit?

Will they take it? Not a chance.

Neither party has any intention of doing anything about this deficit. And thus we continue hurtling towards the cliff.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

No its not all the Democrats fault and there is no cliff in our nations future.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

I didn’t say it was all the Democrats fault.

My point was that they are trying to raise taxes and there is only 1 chance they have to do that. The Republicans refuse to discuss any tax increases and I think they are wrong in that stance. I happen to agree that our current situation requires tax increases and that none of their proposals so far will help in any meaningful way. But if they truly believe that increasing tax revenue is important for dealing with the deficit then letting the Bush tax cuts expire is the only chance they have to actually pass something. You think they should spend time on things that can actually happen right?

You think there is no cliff in our future? You think we can continue like this with zero consequences? Have you observed Europe in the last 2 years?

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avatar 12 Anonymous

OK sorry I thought you were just attacking the Democrats for possibly not raising taxes. The bulk of any blame for taxes not being raised goes to the Republicans since thats their party platform.

Even if you do think raising taxes is important longer term I can certainly see the argument that a poor economy is not a good time to raise taxes. Don’t you think raising taxes in the middle of a recession for example would have made economic recovery more difficult? Or do you think the Democrats are at fault for not raising taxes in the middle of the worst recession since in a century??

No theres no cliff.

America is NOT Greece or Spain. Not even close. We’re the richest nation in the world with the highest GDP. To compare us to the problems of the couple troubled nations in Europe is not a good comparison. Our debt level is certainly high. But whats new about that? Its been high my whole life and my fathers entire life too. In fact right after WWII our debt level / GDP was higher than it is now. We all lived through it and in fact the nation prospered considerably in the following decades.

Current deficit spending is unsustainable long term but it will not continue at the high level it has been. It will drop considerably over the next few years. When the economy picks up things will get better.

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avatar 13 Anonymous


I should say explicitly that I DO agree with your main point here.

There has to be more than just a smallish tax hike on the top ~2%. That alone clearly won’t fix all the governments financial problems.

avatar 14 Anonymous


No I don’t think raising taxes in the worst recession is a great idea. However that is exactly what the Democrats are proposing. However they are only proposing it on the very wealthy. And that is not going to pass. My main point was to show that if they are really serious about raising taxes as a means to get in revenue there is a very easy path to do it. It won’t kick in for another 16 months which gives us more time to heal the economy, its broad based so everyone has to participate, and it brings in significant revenue. It’s actually a very decent solution. And they easily have the votes to make it happen cause all they have to do is refuse to vote for an extension.

When you look at all that doesn’t that seem that if they were truly serious about raising taxes and increasing revenue that would be the choice they would take especially given that they know that the other paths they are proposing will not happen? Now I know that political posturing dictates that you don’t play that card until they end but they had no interest in playing that card at the end of 2010 and I suspect they will have no interest in doing it at the end of 2012 either.

As to the cliff thing, the fact that the republicans are not willing to consider any tax increases and will almost certainly control the senate and likely both houses of congress after 2012 and very possibly the white house as well there is almost no chance of a tax increase till late this century. And for all their talk of cutting spending and once they control most of the branches the Democrats are going to filibuster any attempts at making any serious cuts in spending. So how do we improve this deficit?

You are correct that our debt and deficit have been high our whole lives. But it has been around 50% of GDP and the deficit around 3-4%. Our debt has now in the last about 4 years (end of Bush and Obama, its not just Obama’s fault, they both gave away the farm with their big stimulus programs) its up to 100% of GDP (after WWII it got to like 120 or 140% something like that can’t remember for sure). But when the war ended we tooled down the war machine, put people to work, the economy took off and we raised taxes to pay for it. This is an entirely different situation. There is no major war to tool down here. Yes we can pull back on the middle east wars but the costs of those are minimal in comparison to what WWII was for the 1940s economy, so the savings there will not have a huge impact on the deficit. There is no desire to raise taxes in any meaningful way, even amongst the Democrats so large increases in revenue in the short run do not seem likely. The economy is still quite terrible and I fear that this recession is a structural shift. The building boom of the 2000s allowed us to continue to offer jobs to lower skill workers beyond what our economy needed. We now have an excess of low skilled labor with no jobs for them to do because American low skilled labor cannot compete on price with the low skilled labor in the rest of the world.

We have historically been taxing at 18% of GDP and spending at about 20% of GDP. We are now taxing at 15% of GDP and spending at 25% of GDP. Greece, Italy, Japan, etc have debts that are higher than ours, 150% – 200% of GDP. But their deficits as a percent of GDP are smaller than ours. Obama’s own budgets project over trillion dollar deficits well into the 2020’s. Those kind of deficits will take us up into that 150-200% of GDP for our debt and we will still be going down faster than any other nation in the world.

I am hopeful some adults step up and stop the bus before we are hanging over the cliff. But whether or not you think we will get to the cliff, I don’t see anyway to look at those statistics and not admit that there is a cliff we are driving towards and somebody better wake up the bus driver.

avatar 15 Anonymous

It really bothers me that people are so short sighted. At many points in history the top income earners have paid HUGE taxes – over 70% some years. Obviously that’s never going to be the case again. But it does point out a huge issue with the public now. We want too much – after WWII – people were happy to pay higher taxes to get the government solvent again after it’s huge expenditures. Now – the issues facing us aren’t a world war, still the public must make some concessions. Paying only 15% income on capital gains is preposterous. Anyone who manages to get into a higher pay scale (like anything over 250K or maybe 500K) can easily start shifting huge sums of money into income generating funds and essentially lower his/her tax burden. This is basically only an avenue open to the already fairly well off through the insanely wealthy. So the lesson we are being taught is that once you manage to make a high income, you also get to pay less taxes? I don’t care how your income is generated it should all be taxed the same way. There’s no data that shows that increasing capital gains will change much in the economy – what will happen is that people will invest in more things than just safely parking money in funds.

It’s disgusting really.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

There is data that shows raising capital gains tax will decrease tax revenue. This is not true for income tax but it is true for capital gains because people will simply refuse to sell. This also has the effect of keeping money tied up in some unproductive investments because people are unwilling to move it to more productive ventures due to the tax they would pay.

So while you may feel like its more fair it will raise less revenue and it will be a drag on the economy. So that idea doesn’t seem to come from a place of solving problems, only of making you feel less disgusted.

The higher income taxes on income over 250K as proposed by Obama will generate 70 billion a year. The 500K that you threw out as an alternative will obviously generate even less. We have a 1.6 Trillion dollar deficit. So while this tax increase will not damage the economy as some Republicans claim, it will not produce any noticeable impact on the deficit. So this will also make you feel less disgusted but will not address any of our fiscal challenges in any meaningful way.

So is your goal to make yourself feel better and less disgusted or to solve problems?

If you want to solve problems then we need to let the Bush tax cuts expire. The rich will pay more and the middle class will pay more and the lower class will also pay a little more.

People think the rich have all the money. They don’t. Individually they do have an awful lot but the bulk of the money is in the middle class and if you need more revenue, the middle class has to provide a good chunk of it or you won’t get much money.

I prefer that our elected leaders actually work on solving problems, not just on making us feel better. You seem to prefer to feel less disgusted.

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avatar 17 Ceecee

The biggest criticism I see leveled at the the tax increase for the wealthy is that these people are the “job creators.” If that were truly the case, they should have created thousands of jobs while they had the Bush tax cuts in force. Didn’t happen, did it?

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avatar 18 Anonymous

Exactly! I’ve been saying this for years. And I don’t people decide they want to make less money or not try as hard because the rate at the next higher tax bracket has gone up. That’s nonsense.

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avatar 19 Anonymous

When people say that the stimulus didn’t create any jobs since unemployment numbers are worse than predicted, its defenders say that at least it staved off a depression and even worse unemployment. So we have two actions–tax cuts and stimulus–and the same visible result of non-prosperity. It’s possible to say that one action failed to work while the other did work, but was countered by economic forces in the other direction. But we can’t give assign the explanations to the actions on evidence alone; there are politics involved, and pretending there aren’t is obfuscatory.

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avatar 20 Anonymous

The worst argument that you’ll see in opposition to the tax is that it’s only a relatively small amount of money that would be generated by its implementation. First, that’s actually a good thing, because it means the alleged negative impact is small. Second, it’s moronic. It’s akin to saying a dieter shouldn’t give up sodas because that alone won’t help him lose weight.

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avatar 21 Anonymous

Would you consider it good advice to allow a morbidly obese person to be brain washed into believing that giving up soda will have a huge impact on their weight. That’s how these proposals get promoted. Everything Obama says is about everyone doing their fair share to deal with the deficit. That lets people believe that doing this is dealing with the deficit. But its not doing anything significant. Statistically speaking its just noise.

When you let people believe doing this is doing something meaningful its worse than doing nothing, because you can’t come back for another bite at the apple. Tax reform has to be comprehensive. We have to have a discussion about what we really need to do and what it really needs to look like and we have to have everyone truly understanding that everyone needs to participate in it. If we don’t do that how will you later get middle tax increases without further increasing taxes on the upper end even more which will meet with huge opposition from the Republicans. No, you absolutely cannot pass simply a meaningless increase in taxes on just the upper income because it cuts the legs out from under doing a comprehensive tax increase later.

The kind of facile thinking that calls those arguments moronic has not considered how to solve the real problem and how doing this would make that solution less attainable. You need to think beyond knee jerk feel good reactions that fit with your desires of how you would like things to be.

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avatar 22 Anonymous

The odds of getting complete, comprehensive tax reform in the current political climate are the same as Flexo walking on the moon. It’s just not even a possibility. So what you’re advocating is doing nothing except keeping the status quo–which is clearly failing–until we can get a pie-in-the-sky reform passed. That does not seem like a good solution to me. Raising more money is a good thing.

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avatar 23 Anonymous

Have you read what I said. Allow the Bush tax cuts to expire will be a significant tax increase that cuts across the entire spectrum. That’s comprehensive. It’s not the full reform that would eliminate all the mess in the tax code but you are correct that is not going to happen regardless of how much they talk about it.

But doing the band aid that you propose makes it such that the more comprehensive tax change of letting the Bush tax cuts fully expire will not happen at all and then we are stuck with a band aid that did almost nothing.

I suspect you don’t want the Bush tax cuts to expire do you? You only want the other guy to pay more money. For all the talk of shared sacrifice most people really mean rich sacrifice. BTW, the proposed tax increases on the rich will not hit me. I won’t pay one dime of them. I still advocate for allow the entire bush tax cuts to expire. Its the only way to get any real increase in revenue to deal with the deficit. But you want to feel good about a band aid that won’t do a thing.

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avatar 24 Anonymous

I did read what you wrote and the words “:Bush tax cut” were nowhere in your missive. I agree completely that they should expire. That, to me, is not comprehensive reform. Comprehensive reform would be eliminating the mortgage deduction, etc. I suppose we’re splitting difference on definitions, then.

I also haven’t a clue what you mean by “You only want the other guy to pay more money. For all the talk of shared sacrifice most people really mean rich sacrifice.” You have no idea how much money I make, what my net worth is, and whether the proposed tax would impact me at all.

Last to say that a Buffett tax “won’t do a thing” is just wrong. It would do *something*. Perhaps not as much as either of us would like, but it wouldn’t be “nothing”.

avatar 25 Anonymous


Do you read all the comments? My very first comment addressed explicitly the Bush tax cuts. I did not repeat that entire point in your post because it would be redundant.

The point about the Buffet tax doing nothing is to show that it will do nothing meaningful. I must admit it is a little annoying when people argue minutia. If you have someone how is starving and you give them 1 peanut, is it ok to say that you did nothing even though technically you did do something? I think it is.

avatar 26 Anonymous

“Statistically speaking its just noise.”

Its not really. Today the deficit is $1.6T. $80B in tax revenue from >$250k earners is 5% of that. However by 2015 the deficit is expected to be down to about $600B so then the $80B in tax revenue will be higher and it will be over 13% of the total deficit.

5% and 13% are not huge amounts and alone won’t cure the deficit for sure. But its not just “noise” either.

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avatar 27 Anonymous

My point exactly. It’s not a cure all, but so what?

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avatar 28 Anonymous

The problem is, it’s a political posturing band-aid. There’s major problems with the US debt and deficit – most people agree on that. Now, why should congress spend weeks or months playing people off each other for a few percent reduction of the deficit when what is needed is a comprehensive overhaul that will have lasting effects?

The other problem is that any increase in revenue is not treated by most politicians as deficit or debt reduction, but as new revenue to be spent on something new! Ridiculous!

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avatar 29 Anonymous

Ah Jonathan,

You are using logic and reason. You need to stop that! We won’t feel good about ourselves if we face the true nature of the problem head on. It feels better to convince ourselves we can put a band-aid on our severed artery.

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avatar 30 Anonymous

This should be the buffet rule rather than Buffett rule as it once again appears the tax collectors are heading to the buffet for another helping. Since most Oil Company incentives center on exploration you can expect gas prices to rise. As with any corporation it’s the buyer of the goods that pays the taxes, not the corporation. The only way taxes would have an impact on a coorporation’s bottom line is with a price freeze – Jimmy tried that and it didn’t work. For the individual there are lots of ways to stay below any particular tax bracket and lots of smart people to help keep you from busting into a higher marginal rate. With today’s market volatility it’s pretty easy to sell losers and hold winners in an effort to forestall tax increases and even reduce tax bills.

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avatar 31 Anonymous

What’s the chance this tax is used to fund another failed stimulus bill?

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avatar 32 Anonymous

Prove that it failed and that things wouldn’t be worse without them. Also, for people that say the government doesn’t create jobs, they do. When they have budget cuts, people lose government jobs. Most (big) businesses are hoarding cash and not creating jobs so apparently, high taxes are not the issue. I know the issue gets muddled between corporate taxes and private taxes, but if the tax rates go up for millionaires, that affects a really small percentage of business owners who have the capability to create jobs.

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avatar 33 Anonymous

You are correct it affects a very small percent of business owners. And it brings in an equally small amount of revenue. You willing to get in the boat and pay some shared sacrifice or you just want the small 2% of people to pay that sacrifice?

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avatar 34 Anonymous

Since Obama is basically asking congress for another jobs plan and unemployment is still stuck at 9% its pretty much proven to have failed to deliver on what it was promised. The bill was called the “stimulus bill” because it was designed to stimulate the economy and keep unemployment low. Unfortunately Obama was correct in that the touted shovel ready jobs “weren’t quite shovel ready”.

The spin now is that it prevented another great depression? How can “you” prove that it succeeded? Is unemployment below 8%? Can you prove that unemployment would be 20% now if it wasn’t passed?

Much like the loan to the solar company that went bankrupt, I think the bill was a gigantic waste that failed to live up to its promise.

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avatar 35 Anonymous

AP fact checked Obama’s statement about Millionaires pay less taxes than secretaries: link

False! Finally the press is fact checking Obama and his false statements.

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avatar 36 Anonymous

“Over time, though, as the income range for middle class grew, the AMT was not automatically adjusted. The AMT began to hit an increasing number of families who would not consider themselves wealthy.”

The AMT migtht affect an increasing number of families, but I argue that it isn’t impacting the average family. In order to be subject to the AMT, you need taxable earnings (after your pre-tax deductions like retirement savings and medical insurance premiums) over $100,000, claim a large number of exemptions (children or other dependents), and a great amount of itemized deductions. I always find that the argument that the AMT is affecting the ambigously defined middle class to be lazy analysis or fear mongering.

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avatar 37 qixx

As long as the government is willing to spend more than it takes in, no tax increases will make much difference. Bringing in an extra $1 often means our representatives see that as another $1 they can spend not $1 towards reducing debt.

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avatar 38 Anonymous

The explanation for Buffett “paying less taxes than his secretary” is because the taxes that he is discussing are the second part of a double taxation. The typical very wealthy person makes most of their money from dividends and capital gains (e.g. Romney’s recent financial disclosure). Both of these sources of income derive from owning stock. When you own stock of a company, you own a portion of that company. The net earnings of a company are initially taxed by corporate income tax which is thirty some percent. This tax is a tax on every owner of stock of that company, just the same as if there was only one owner of a company who was taxed at the same rate. When a stockowner sells stock, the capital gains tax is an additional tax on top of the corporate income tax. Similarly, if profits from a company are distributed to the stockholders as dividends, the dividend tax is an additional layer of tax on top of the corporate income tax. At least this is how the subject is presented in the most basic of economics textbooks. References upon request. It is misleading to present the Buffett rule discussion without discussing what the corporate income rate is and whether the combination of the corporate tax rate and the capital gains tax/ dividends tax is still too low. My personal opinion is to really tackles the deficit one of the steps that will need to be taken is this combination of taxes will have to be raised. Nevertheless, I believe that a fair, honest, and unbiased discussion of fair capital gains and dividends tax rates ABSOLUTELY must include discussion of the corporate income tax rate. Remember, this is a media and a public which allowed the U.S. to go to war in Iraq without ever presenting a rational justification. Let’s try to elevate the level of discussion above propaganda please.

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