Don’t Think of a Buffett

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SUN VALLEY, ID - JULY 07: Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, attends the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 7, 2011 in Sun Valley, Idaho. The conference has been hosted annually by the investment firm Allen & Company each July since 1983 and is typically attended by many of the world’s most powerful media executives. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Philip Klein has a fun look at the life of Rep. Howard Buffett, far-right Republican father of Warren. The elder Buffett’s politics have not worn well: He fretted about the economy at the start of the post-war boom, and he opposed the Marshall Plan because “there are businesses that are being enriched by national defense spending and foreign handouts.” (There’s a reductio ad absurdium to the “crony” argument: Even if you believe the state should only exist as a night watchman, it’s eventually going to benefit certain companies that make, say, shells and rifles.)

The elder Buffett was for limited government at home, non-interventionism abroad, and a gold standard. Along these lines, he was a campaign director for the conservative non-interventionist Robert Taft in the 1952 GOP nomination battle against the establishment candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Like my colleague Annie Lowrey’s micro-profile of Warren Buffett’s secretary, this gets to the weakness of the “Buffett rule” and argument by anecdote. The best Democratic argument for a higher tax on wealthy people is that we’ve had the tax before, and the economy didn’t collapse. But Democrats can’t sell that. They go to a trusted billionaire to make the argument. Alas! The trusted billionaire can be attacked as a peddler of anecdotes and a hypocrite.

On taxes, the Democratic problem of the post-Reagan era has been this: People don’t like paying taxes. People instinctively think that cutting taxes stimulates the economy, and raising them hurts it. There is a big opening on tax rates for high-income earners: People think they should be higher. Alas, Democrats haven’t won a fight on that issue for 18 years. So you embrace wealthy people who will make the case for you. The ad hominems flow in. If you’re lucky, you’ve got a memorable defense of a gimmick that you really should be able to defend as policy.