The Magazine

Wealthier Than Thou

How about a tax on sanctimonious millionaires!

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

During the final two months of 2010, the United States enjoyed what was perhaps the most sustained public discussion of debt and deficits in a generation. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, released their provocative report. Former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin and noted Republican deficit hawk Paul Ryan put out a comprehensive debt reduction proposal. Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana and a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate, offered specific proposals to reform the entitlements that are most responsible for driving the country deep into the red. 

Wealthier Than Thou

Photo Credit: Gary Locke

My favorite contribution to this national conversation came from “Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength,” an ad hoc organization of several dozen really rich people who want to raise taxes on other really rich people (and themselves). Among those who count themselves Patriotic Millionaires: the one-named, ambient-rock star Moby, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, George Zimmer, the gravelly voiced CEO of Men’s Wearhouse, and other really rich people who are presumably no less patriotic for being much less famous. 

The PMFS acknowledged that raising taxes on the rich was not the most significant fiscal issue facing lawmakers. But, they argued, higher taxes were nonetheless essential in “establishing the discipline we will need to secure our country’s fiscal strength.” So they leapt into action, launching a website (www.fiscalstrength.org) to raise money to buy airtime for a 30-second TV spot urging that the government make them pay higher taxes. 

But times like this require something more, so they didn’t just register a domain name and put out a virtual tin cup. Anyone can do that. These selfless souls risked exposing their wealth and altruism to national publicity by addressing a letter to the president. It read:

We are writing to urge you to stand firm against those who would put politics ahead of their country. For the fiscal health of our nation and the well-being of our fellow citizens, we ask that you allow tax cuts on incomes over $1,000,000 to expire at the end of this year as scheduled. We make this request as loyal citizens who now or in the past earned an income of $1,000,000 per year or more. We have done very well over the last several years. Now, during our nation’s moment of need, we are eager to do our fair share. We don’t need more tax cuts, and we understand that cutting our taxes will increase the deficit and the debt burden carried by other taxpayers. The country needs to meet its financial obligations in a just and responsible way.

Alas, as we know, those who would put politics ahead of their country prevailed when the Bush tax cuts were not allowed to expire. The selfish and myopic politicians responsible for this travesty hid behind so-called “economic” arguments—similar to President Obama’s contention back in the summer of 2009 that raising taxes in a recession was “the last thing you want to do.” In the end, despite the warnings of these self-described patriots, Washington caved and extended the current tax rates for everyone, with the disastrous result that now all Americans, including greedy small business owners who can only aspire to become millionaires, will get to keep more of the money they’ve earned.

That was the last straw for funnyman Larry David. “THERE is a God,” the mastermind behind Seinfeld wrote recently in the New York Times op-ed pages, deploying his trademark sarcasm on behalf of a grateful nation. “The Bush tax cuts have been extended two years for the upper bracketeers, of which I am a proud member,” he continued. Indeed, in 1998 alone David earned $242 million when Seinfeld was sold into syndication for $1.7 billion, making him number two on Forbes’ celebrity earnings list that year. 

David is also the star of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show about a self-involved Hollywood celebrity whose relentless narcissism renders him incapable of seeing the world as anything beyond his small-minded obsessions. “I was planning a trip to Cabo with my kids for Christmas vacation,” David confided to Times readers. “We were going to fly coach, but now with the money I’m saving in taxes, I’m going to splurge and bump myself up to first class. First class!”

The good news is that even though U.S. taxpayers are now unfairly forced to keep more of their own earnings, there is something Larry David and other progressive patriots with a few million to burn can do about it. 

The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Public Debt has a fund called Gift Contributions to Reduce Debt Held by the Public, to which David and his friends can conveniently contribute online at www.pay.gov. But given their patriotism, they’ll probably prefer to mail a check—you know, to support the U.S. Postal Service, some $8.5 billion in the red—to: 

Attn Dept G 

Bureau of the Public Debt

P.O. Box 2188

Parkersburg, WV 26106-2188

The Treasury keeps a running total of these gifts, and it is worth noting that despite the very public exhortations made by these loyal citizens so eager to do their fair share, the annual sums have been little more than a rounding error on Larry David’s 1040. For tax year 2010, the total to date is $2,840,466.75—though there is still some time to match the $3,063,057.05 donated last year, when, presumably, celebrity patriotic millionaires were feeling especially civic-minded.

There is, of course, another advantage to showing your commitment to the country’s fiscal strength in this way. By quietly giving their money directly to the federal government, patriotic millionaires can avoid all of the unwanted attention to their wealth and righteousness that comes with taking such a public position.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers