Warren Buffett Monday penned an op-ed in the New York Times in which he urged Congress to raise taxes on him and other rich folks. He pointed out that in a time of rampant inequality and fiscal crisis, it is absurd that many wealthy people pay much lower taxes on income earned from investments than middle-class pay on income earned from their wages.
An excellent point. But talk is cheap, especially when the talk is about how you are being undertaxed. If Buffett thinks he should be paying more, critics say, he should just send a check to Washington. And that's a great idea.
A century ago, anarchists used to speak about 'propaganda by deed' — a bold stroke that would capture attention, inspire change, alter public opinion, perhaps even foment a revolution. Of course, back then it meant, say, throwing bombs into the middle of a crowd. These days, a rich person — or corporation — could carry off such a coup by simply writing a check to the government.
Throughout history, businesspeople have occasionally taken highly public actions that were seemingly irrational, risky and self-impoverishing. In 1907, during a vicious stock panic that threatened to engulf the U.S. financial system, J.P. Morgan single-handedly stepped in. "This is the place to stop the trouble, then," he said, while putting his own funds at risk to orchestrate a bank bailout. Amid the panic, John D. Rockefeller loudly deposited money in a troubled bank and pledged to buy stocks. In 1914, at a time of rising labor unrest, Henry Ford shocked his competitors (and the establishment) by announcing he would pay assembly line workers the above-market wage of $5 per day. These moves may not have seemed economically rational at the time. People who commit big sums to equities in the middle of crashes generally lose money, and businesses that intentionally pay unskilled labor above-market wages tend to go out of business. But they were actually very shrewd investments in the system. If U.S. markets ceased to function, J.P. Morgan's firm would have been among the biggest losers. Ford reasoned that his company would prosper if he could turn the automobile from a luxury product into a utility for the working- and middle class. He wanted to pay his workers enough so they could afford to buy his products. It worked out pretty well for Ford and his heirs.
Such bold, seemingly self-abnegating strokes can bring non-financial rewards, too. J.P. Morgan, with his massive fortune, devil-may-care attitude toward the public, and bulbous rosacea-encrusted nose, was perhaps the least cuddly figure of early 20th century American finance. But Morgan's role in stopping the panic (chronicled by Robert Bruner and Sean Carr in The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market's Perfect Storm) has led history to regard him more kindly. The $5 day has had a similar effect in burnishing the historical reputation of Henry Ford, which was tarnished by anti-Semitism and bizarre foreign policy stances.
In today's culture, it's not enough for the very rich to have more money than other people. They want to be more well-regarded and better-loved than other people. People with large fortunes routinely take steps that will make them or their heirs less wealthy in an effort to gain social goodwill, prominence and reputation. That's the whole idea behind the giving pledge, the 2010 initiative started by Buffett and Bill Gates, under which 40 billionaires pledged to give away more than half their fortunes. As the song goes: How do you spell love? M-O-N-E-Y.
So why not take the same attitude toward taxes? Imagine if Buffett and a dozen other billionaires just started asking their payroll departments, or accountants, to withhold a higher level of taxes from their salaries, or to pay capital gains at a higher rate. It wouldn't do much to dent their existing fortunes — that's money they've already made. And sure they'd look like chumps at the next Davos, and would open themselves to ridicule on Internet message boards and in private clubs. But, oh, how their reputations would soar! They'd be lauded as patriotic citizens, invited to appear on all the best talk shows, elevated above their fellow gazillionaires. While such check-writing wouldn't do much to impact the national debt, it might inspire others to do the same and alter the poisonous conversation surrounding taxes and income.
But let's not stop there. Large U.S. companies aren't exactly popular these days. They're creating jobs overseas while displaying reluctance to invest at home. Meanwhile, they invest massively in lobbying to rig the tax code and hire high-priced professionals to reduce their tax bills. As Jesse Drucker of Bloomberg reports, U.S. companies are sitting on up to $1 trillion in foreign earnings. Companies say they'll bring the money home, but only if they get to pay a special low tax rate on them. (Note: this was tried in 2004, and it didn't work out all that well.) The theory: Since the taxes were earned overseas, the U.S. government has no claim on them. The reality? All these large U.S. companies were born and nurtured in the U.S. They're American citizens, with headquarters and businesses aided by U.S. infrastructure, shielded by U.S. law and protected by the vast U.S. military. Plus, we could really use the $350 billion in taxes that repatriating the already earned profits at existing rates would bring in.
Lord knows, this White House and this Congress aren't going to start beating up corporate America about its tax evasion. But imagine if an unpopular large company like, say, General Electric, which leads the pack on shielded overseas earnings, were to announce that it will repatriate its overseas profits, pay taxes on them and then use the after-tax money to pay a dividend, buy back stock or invest in the U.S. Sure, it would be expensive and unnecessary. Yes, the in-house accountants and Wall Street analysts would scream. Rivals would smirk at the massive self-inflicted wound to the stock, and to the company.
But, really, given that G.E.'s stock trades exactly where it did 15 year ago, and that is has fallen by more than 70 percent since July 2000, what could management do to shareholders that hasn't already been done to them? And think of the benefits that would accrue to the company. Paying a few billion dollars in taxes that it isn't required to would allow GE, and any other company that follows suit, to do what most Fortune 500 firms haven't been able to do since the 1990s: claim the moral high ground. Just as a self-taxing Buffett would, a self-taxing company would garner a huge amount of publicity and positive reputation-building. Think of the laudatory editorials and columns, the television specials, the invitations to the White House, the self-congratulatory full-page ads announcing how the company is contributing to national renewal. No eight-figure marketing campaign would build that much goodwill.
Imagine a controlled experiment. One company repatriates cash and pays taxes on the earnings, while the other — about the same size and in the same business -- continues to stow it offshore and agitate loudly for tax amnesty. Over time, I'd wager that the stock and the business of the repatriator would outperform the hostage-taker, or at the very least that it wouldn't underperform it.
Shareholders and the public reward performance and financial metrics, as Warren Buffett has learned in his career. But Buffett has learned a larger truth: They also shower their affections on public entities that are savvy about their images and brands, and that display leadership.
Daniel Gross is economics editor at Yahoo! Finance.
Email him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @grossdm.