And Buffett is absolutely playing this for personal PR purposes -- the more he ostensibly calls for greater "sacrifices" from himself; the more he alleviates any potential sources of envy against his wealth. Buffett may well end up doing better in a world of higher capital taxes, which would place enormous burdens on his competitors. Add to that his own ideological biases, the fact that Buffett doesn't pay many taxes anyway due to the fact that he's donating the vast bulk of his wealth, etc. and you end up with a not-particularly compelling case.
But then you also have some seemingly factual howlers.
Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as “carried interest,” thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate. Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors.
Then there's this section, which is something that Buffett repeats over and over:
Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.
Leave aside Buffett's estimation of his own tax liability, which primarily reflects capital gains. How are his other office employees taxed at those rates? After all, one only enters the 35% income tax bracket after $250,000; and even there the average tax liability of a person will be much lower (something like 27% in my calculation). Is his comparing his average tax liability with the marginal tax liability of his employees? In the past, he's frequently claimed to have a higher tax rate than his secretary making $60,000 a year. Yet the marginal tax rate for a single person with that income is 25%. That's of course higher than the 17% he quotes above; but is far lower than the range he provides there (with an average tax liability that is far lower too).
There's much more here that's absurd. For instance:
I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off.
Why don't we just go all the way up to a tax rate of 90% then if the tax rate doesn't matter? If you think it matters at 90% on some margin, who is to say it doesn't matter at 39.9%? Why on earth do we think that asking investors will yield better information than thinking through data or theory? There's just no reason to think that making lots of money endows someone with insight in public policy or a comparative advantage in Op-Ed writing.
Update: From James Choi, someone with an Adjustable Gross Income of ~$60,000 pays 12.9% of their taxable income as income tax, and 8.5% of their AGI as income tax. Sure, you can add in payroll taxes, etc. in here -- but it's difficult to see exactly where he's getting the "my secretary pays so much more in taxes than me" statistics from.
Update 2: Steve Waldman has more in the comments regarding the tax treatment of futures. Buffett was right about this and I was wrong. It's still somewhat misleading in the sense that it presents an extreme example of short-term trading, when only 10 percent of the gains accrued by partners are taxed overall at the short-term rate. The particular rule behind the mentioned 60/40 split seems reasonable. Buffett's real concern anyway is not with the long/short run taxation of capital; but with carried interest rules and capital taxes generally. And I'm somewhat with him on the carried interest rules.