Every year, a few vocal multimillionaires and billionaires publicly announce that there is nothing they would like more than to finally pay more taxes. Every such announcement attracts a great deal of media attention. After all, there is one rule journalists learn very early in their careers: “‘Dog Bites Postman’ is not a story; ‘Postman Bites Dog’ is.”
Millionaires calling for more taxes is a typical “postman bites dog” news story.
Over the last few days, the media was at it again. The BBC, in an article headlined “Millionaires ask to pay more tax,” reports that a group of more than 100 millionaires from nine countries have called on governments to make them pay more tax. “Tax us, the rich, and tax us now,” pleaded the groups Patriotic Millionaires, Millionaires for Humanity, and Tax Me Now, according to the left-wing organization Oxfam.
For many years, I earned a decent amount as an entrepreneur and real estate investor in Germany, but my tax burden from my entrepreneurial activities was almost 50 percent every year. I also don’t evade taxes and don’t “cheat” the system, although that is precisely what many people claim the rich are doing across the board. Yet not a single study has ever proved that tax evasion is more common among the rich than among the non-rich. What really annoys me are multimillionaires who themselves take excessive advantage of a host of tax planning arrangements and then publicly announce that they would like to pay more taxes.
I know hundreds of multimillionaires and plenty of billionaires and conducted in-depth interviews with 45 of them for my doctoral dissertation The Wealth Elite. But I have yet to meet anyone who felt they weren’t paying enough tax. The 100 millionaires and billionaires from nine countries who have signed the latest letter asking to pay more tax might sound like a lot, but there are 2,755 billionaires around the world.
There are also more than 20 million millionaires in the world, so 100 is equivalent to 0.0005 percent. These are the postmen who bite dogs.
In many cases, the signatories are heirs who have not earned the money themselves. Many of them (for whatever reason) may have developed guilty consciences, and thus feel the urge to tell everyone that they feel some sense of duty to pay more in taxes. Sometimes it is the super-rich who have long since feathered their own nests. While the voices of anti-capitalists such as George Soros and Warren Buffett, who vehemently argue for the rich to pay higher taxes, can be heard loudly, those who believe that taxes are far too high rarely speak out in public. Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens, two left-leaning political scientists who are themselves highly critical of the rich, speak of the “public silence of most billionaires.”
“The public silence of most billionaires,” write Page and Gilens in their book Democracy in America, “contrasts markedly with the willingness of a small, unusual group of billionaires—including Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates—to speak out about specific public policies… All three have favored a substantial social safety net, progressive taxes, and moderate regulation of the economy. An ordinary American who tried to judge what U.S. billionaires think and do about politics by listening to Bloomberg, Buffett, or Gates would be badly misled.”
This observation is correct and points to the crux of the problem: The public pressure to criticize capitalism is so great that it even silences billionaires, while rich people who advocate higher taxes on the rich and more government regulation feel free to speak their minds without concern.
The great irony, of course, is that the treasury account into which money can be voluntarily transferred remains almost empty year after year.