President Obama did an event in Washington yesterday with a group called Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength that wants to raise taxes on Americans with $1 million or more of annual income. One member of the group, Whitney Tilson, has an op-ed piece in the Washington Post in which he writes, in part:
I think that most people who complain about our government have no idea what they're talking about because they've never been to a country with a bad government. I regularly visit Kenya (my parents retired there and my sister works there), I visited Ethiopia many times when my parents lived there, and growing up I lived for three years each in Tanzania and Nicaragua. So I've seen what life is like under corrupt, dysfunctional, underfunded governments. To quote Hobbes, it can be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."
I am grateful for the effective government we have in this country, which is the absolutely necessary foundation for our wonderful capitalistic economic system that has benefited me so greatly. And I'm willing to do my fair share — in fact, more than my fair share — to help rein in our deficits and put this country on a more sustainable path.
Sorry, but it's hard for me to take seriously the suggestion that without taking in more revenue than the approximately $2 trillion the American federal government took in last year, America is going to end up underfunded in the same sense as Kenya, Tanzania, Nicaragua or Ethiopia. All of those countries had trouble in part because of detours into socialism; to suggest that their problem was insufficiently high tax rates, or that our own government just can't find a way to make do on $2 trillion a year without sending us all into third-world conditions, is just silly.
The list of names (scroll down) on the list of "Patriotic Millionaires" is also some interesting reading. I do not know or recognize them all, but the ones I do recognize include a number of older individuals who have already made most of their money. Arnold Hiatt retired as chairman of Stride Rite in 1992 at age 64 to devote himself full time to philanthropy. Michael Steinhardt is not the retiring sort, but he closed his hedge fund in 1995 to focus on philanthropy. Lawrence Benenson's real estate fortune seems to have been established by his grandfather, while he describes himself as "militant about philanthropy."
It's fine that these people want to give away the money that they or their ancestors earned, or that they want to give more of it to the federal government. But the names of the really dramatic wealth creators of the past five or ten or 15 years — the Google and Facebook guys, Jeff Bezos — are missing from this list, perhaps because they think they can deploy their own capital to better effect than the politicians in Washington can.
What's more, it's one thing for Mr. Tilson to want, because of his own personal experience, to give more money to the federal government. But he can certainly do that without using the force of law to compel other people, who may feel differently than him, to do the same.
Some of my comments about this group from November 2010 also apply today.