Billionaire Obama fundraiser Warren Buffett is totally within his rights to pay only the taxes he owes -- as an individual, and as the owner of many corporations. I've even defended the integrity of Buffett's paying a low rate while lobbying for a higher rate.
But the situation is more complex than that, as today's Wall Street Journal editorial points out. Here's my favorite part:
"I will do anything that is basically covered by the law to reduce Berkshire's tax rate," he said. "For example, on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That's the only reason to build them. They don't make sense without the tax credit."
First, Buffett implicitly admits that wind investments come at the expense of other investments that are more economically promising, if not for distortions caused by tax laws.
As the WSJ editors put it: "So political favors for the wind industry induce a leading U.S. company to misallocate its scarce investment dollars for an uneconomic purpose."
But there's more. Buffett doesn't merely invest in a technology that's subsidized --he also lobbies for those subsidies. The lobbying disclosure of Buffett-owned MidAmerican Energy shows the company lobbying on the "PTC," or "Production Tax Credit."
Buffett's other companies have lobbied for tax breaks for corporate jets.
So Buffett is reducing his corporate taxes in three ways:
1) Using accounting to minimize his tax bill. This is natural, good, and everyone should do it, I believe.
2) Investing in things that get tax breaks. Again, natural, and probably blameless, but certainly it creates economic distortions, impoverishing the economy as a whole.
3) Lobbying to continue or expand tax credits for his investments. This strikes me as problematic for a guy who claims to want the rich to pay more in taxes.