February 14, 2001
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The New York Times uses the top of its front page this morning to display what is essentially a press release about an advertisement that will appear in Sunday's New York Times. The advertisement comes from "dozens of rich Americans" who oppose a repeal of the death tax, or, as the Times calls it, the estate tax. The Times should have charged the rich Americans double for the ad, because, for all the critical treatment the ad's arguments get in today's news columns, the Times might have just been straightforward about it and run the ad twice.
The most hilarious arguments in the Times article are made by one of the ringleaders of the "dozens of rich Americans" for the estate tax, Warren Buffett. Mr. Buffett, the Times reports, said the estate tax plays a critical role "in promoting economic growth, by helping create a society in which success is based on merit rather than inheritance." Mr. Buffett, the Times reports, said repealing the estate tax would be the equivalent of "choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics," which he said would be "absolute folly."
Hmm. Does Mr. Buffett think that New York Times readers have already forgotten that September 3, 2000, article in the Times business section, a profile of the billionaire's eldest son, Howard Buffett? "As the eldest son of the Oracle of Omaha, Howard stands to become the next chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, his father's holding company-turned-gold mine," the Times reported back in September. The Times added that if Warren Buffett "were hit by a car tomorrow, he said, his chairmanship would pass to Howard."
So, on the one hand, Mr. Buffett proclaims that as a matter of national policy, there should be a society "in which success is based on merit rather than inheritance." And he says that choosing Olympic athletes by choosing eldest sons is "absolute folly." Yet he himself chooses his eldest son to succeed him as chairman of the venture that is probably most important to him personally, Berkshire Hathaway.
Another argument made by the "dozens of rich Americans" is that "The estate tax exerts a powerful and positive effect on charitable giving. Repeal would have a devastating effect on public charities."
Here, again, Mr. Buffett comes off as a hypocrite. If he's so concerned about charitable giving, nothing is stopping him from giving away more of his vast assets right now. As it is, he has been criticized as a grinch by none other than Ted Turner and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Ms. Dowd wrote on August 22, 1996 that Bill Gates "and Mr. Buffett have given away some money, but not the really big bucks. The Microsoft founder promises to give away most of his $16 billion, but wants to wait until he is 50 or 60 to plan it. Mr. Buffett has said he will give the bulk of his $15 billion to population control, but not until after he and his wife are gone." Mr. Gates has started giving away more money in earnest since 1996, but Mr. Buffett still hasn't given away the really big bucks.
Again, the Times article points out none of these ironies. Nor does it quote any of the many Americans who are not rich but who aspire to be, or who are wealthy but not as wealthy as Mr. Buffett, and who want to repeal the death tax. (You have to go to www. deathtax.com to get a flavor of that.) Nor does it point out that Mr. Buffett has structured his own finances so as to minimize the tax he owes -- his wealth is mainly in the form of capital gains, which are tax-free until they are realized. In any event, the idea of being lectured on economic growth by a man who plans to give his fortune to population control is itself pretty rich stuff. Population growth, after all, contributes to economic growth.
Maybe if the folks at www.deathtax.com bought a full-page ad in the New York Times, they would get an above-the-fold front page news story showcasing their arguments. In so doing, however, they'd only be contributing to the profits of the newspaper empire run by Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who -- thank goodness for the estate tax -- is another product of that society "in which success is based on merit rather than inheritance."
'Rod-Larsen': A dispatch from Jerusalem in the international section of today's New York Times refers repeatedly to Terje "Rod-Larsen." This is a new spelling for the name of the U.N. envoy in the Middle East; the Times had been spelling his name as "Roed-Larsen."
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