Nov. 15, 2007 — -- It's been said there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes.
Now one of those certainties is under attack from an unlikely source: Warren Buffett. Wednesday, the billionaire founder of the investment firm Berkshire Hathaway Inc. went to Washington to ask Congress not to cut his taxes. Buffett says the super-rich should be taxed more, not less.
In particular Buffett urged the Senate Finance Committee not to repeal the estate tax. It is scheduled to come up for a vote, perhaps as soon as this week.
He told the committee that he recently compared how much he pays in taxes in terms of a percentage of his salary to what his employees pay.
The results? Buffett says he pays 18 percent of his salary to the IRS while the rest of his staff pays nearly twice that — 33 percent, a lopsided equation that put Buffett in a Robin Hood frame of mind.
"Frankly, an economy where my receptionist pays a lot higher tax rate than, than I do does not strike me as a just economy," he told lawmakers.
Buffet has challenged the elite members of the Forbes 400 list to do their own calculations and compare their tax rate with their receptionists, and then consider his challenge that the rich should pay more.
"I see nothing wrong with those who have been blessed by this society to give a larger portion of their income to the society than somebody that's working very, very hard to make ends meet," Buffett said.
ABC even offered to help Buffett by calling some of the richest 400 and offering to do the tax calculations for them. There were no takers, although the few that returned ABC's calls were polite and left nice voice mails.
"We must regretfully decline," said one.
"Unfortunately he has decided to decline," proclaimed another
"He'd like to decline the interview. … Thank you anyway."
More then 25 billionaires including Ted Turner and Michael Bloomberg declined to talk to ABC News. But some of them sounded off to Forbes magazine. One suggested that Buffett should keep to his area of expertise, calling his ideas "grossly simplistic." Another wondered whether Buffett is going senile.
It was no surprise, of course, that these comments were anonymously submitted, says the Wall Street Journals' Wendy Bounds "The worry is that if they go on the record, the rich people … it puts them in a position of having to cheerlead for something that they're not entirely sure they're comfortable with."
But is it simplistic? We polled some tax experts to get a second opinion..
"I don't think it's a gross oversimplification at all," said Gene Sperling, from the Center for American Progress, a think tank.
"The richest families in our country pay a lower tax rate than the people who take care of their children, or who teach in their schools, or who would put out a fire if their house were to start to burn," Sperling said.
What about that 55 percent estate tax billionaires pay when they die?
Buffett says repealing the estate tax or the "death tax" as Republican critics call it helps only the rich who don't need the help.
"You would have to attend 200 funerals to be at one where the deceased's estate had to pay that tax," he told senators.
Does the estate tax help level the playing field?
Norman Bartczak from Columbia University says yes. "If you asked most Americans if they could pay their taxes after they die they'd all be happy to do so."
Buffett has promised $1 million to the charity of his or her choice for any billionaire who does the math in his or her office and proves him wrong.
Buffett says three of his close friends have taken him up on the challenge and they all came up with the same results: Ordinary folks are suffering under tax rates nearly twice as high as what billionaires pay.