Warren Buffett is just dying to give more of his money to the federal government. Or at least that is what he has written, again, in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Not only does Buffett want the current marginal income tax rates on the wealthy to rise to just under 40 percent, he also wants a brand-new "minimum tax on high incomes" of 30 percent. Buffett is apparently unaware that the Alternative Minimum Tax (28 percent on incomes above $175,000) was created in 1982 and has been a fiscal and political failure ever since.
Never mind that Buffett and his wealthy liberal friends are perfectly free to write the Treasury Department a check whenever they want. And that Buffett is free to change the legal structure of his own investments to increase his tax liability at any time. Let's instead focus on the ideal size of government he has suddenly embraced.
"Our government's goal should be to bring in revenues of 18.5 percent of GDP and spend about 21 percent of GDP," Buffett writes. "Levels that have been attained over extended periods in the past and can clearly be reached again."
"Assuming even conservative projections about inflation and economic growth," Buffett continues, "this ratio of revenue to spending will keep America's debt stable in relation to the country's economic output."
On this point, Buffett is mostly correct. The posWorld War II average for federal taxes as a percentage of GDP is just under 18 percent. And the posWorld War II average for federal spending as a percentage of GDP is 19.7 percent. If we could get the federal government back to these levels, our fiscal house would largely be in order.
Currently, as Buffett notes, taxes as a percentage of GDP are well below average at 15.5 percent, a postwar low. But this is not due to tax cuts passed by President George W. Bush (taxes as a percentage of GDP were 17.5 percent when he left office), but rather a result of the weakest economic recovery since World War II. According to the Congressional Budget Office, even if all of the Bush tax cuts were extended, taxes as a percentage of GDP would reach Buffett's 18.5 percent target by 2020.
It is spending, not taxes, that drives our fiscal imbalance. Buffett's man in the White House is the worst offender. President Obama's budget calls for the federal government to spend 23.4 percent of GDP next year and an average of 22.6 percent of GDP through 2017.
Contrast Obama's high-tax, high-spending approach with the budget passed by Paul Ryan and the House Republicans last year. The Ryan budget allows taxes as a percentage of GDP to reach Buffett's 18.5 percent target by 2017, and then rises to 18.7 percent by 2022. Ryan then restores fiscal balance by bringing spending down near historic norms, averaging 20 percent through 2022.
If Buffett is serious about the parameters he outlined on Monday, he should spend less time trying to force others to pay more in taxes and more time trying to get Washington spend less.