"The Oracle of Omaha is at it again. On July 7, Warren Buffett told Bloomberg: "I think the rich have a responsibility to pay higher tax rates." Then he groused that his wealthy friends are "paying lower tax rates than the people who are serving us the food." Mr. Buffett has been voicing this complaint for years, once observing that his personal tax rate of 17.7% is lower than that of his receptionist (30%).
During Monday night's national address, President Obama recited the Buffet line that millionaires and billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Democrats in Congress routinely cite Mr. Buffett's tax confessions as irrefutable evidence that tax rates on the very rich are too low and the system is unfair. And the system would be unfair, if Mr. Buffett's tax facts were the whole truth. But they aren't.
I don't know the details of Warren Buffet's personal taxes, and he hasn't made them public. But the IRS does provide reliable data on effective tax rates
—the overall share of their income that various groups pay in federal income taxes (not including state or local taxes) after accounting for all deductions and exemptions. These are different than marginal tax rates, which are paid on the next dollar of income and now peak at 35% for individuals.
IRS data for 2008, for example, show that households in the top 10% of earners (above about $114,000) paid 19% of their income to the feds (see chart above). Those in the top 1% (above $380,000) paid 23.3%. The top 0.1% of earners, with incomes of $2 million or more, end up paying a slightly lower tax of 22.7%, because they get more of their income from investments (more about this below).
So what about the rest of us? According to IRS data, a median-income household ($35,000) in 2008 paid about 4% of its income in federal income tax."
The chart above shows that the U.S. income tax system is progressive (as it's intended to be) and higher income groups pay taxes at a higher rate on average, as a share of their taxable income. For the bottom 50% of taxpayers with incomes of $33,000 or less, the average tax rate is only 2.6%.
As I have mentioned several times before, if Warren Buffett thinks he should pay higher taxes, he doesn't have to wait for the Bush tax cuts to expire, he can pay higher taxes right now by making a gift to the U.S. Treasury, instructions are here