BUSINESS
11/26/2012 05:20 pm ET

Greg Mankiw: Warren Buffett May Not Be The Tax Avoidance Hawk He Says He Is

Warren Buffett has an op-ed in today's NY Times on one of his most popular themes: The rich should pay more in taxes. At first blush, his position seems noble: A rich guy says that people like him should pay more to support the commonweal. But on closer examination, one realizes that Mr Buffett never mentions doing anything to eliminate the tax-avoidance strategies that he uses most aggressively. In particular:

1. His company Berkshire Hathaway never pays a dividend but instead retains all earnings. So the return on this investment is entirely in the form of capital gains. By not paying dividends, he saves his investors (including himself) from having to immediately pay income tax on this income.

2. Mr Buffett is a long-term investor, so he rarely sells and realizes a capital gain. His unrealized capital gains are untaxed.

3. He is giving away much of his wealth to charity. He gets a deduction at the full market value of the stock he donates, most of which is unrealized (and therefore untaxed) capital gains.

4. When he dies, his heirs will get a stepped-up basis. The income tax will never collect any revenue from the substantial unrealized capital gains he has been accumulating.

To be sure, there are pros and cons of changing the provisions of the tax code of which Mr Buffett takes advantage. Tax policy always involves difficult tradeoffs. But it seems odd to me that whenever Mr Buffett talks about taxing the rich more, the "loopholes" that he uses never seem to enter into the conversation.

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