Promising not to promise….

In yesterday’s New York Times, Warren Buffett argues that super rich folks should pay higher taxes. Had I asserted that the rich should pay more, it would be an entirely unremarkable example of the famous ditty by Senator Russell Long (“Don’t tax me, don’t tax thee, tax that fella behind the tree”). These days, you can substitute “cut” for “tax” and make the same point. But as the world’s third richest mogul, Buffett seems to be arguing against his own economic interest. Buffett might assert that higher taxes, a more stable economy, and even less inequality are in the long term economic interest of the super rich. Might be true, but it is still unusual for people to campaign against their short term interests. As a group, his fellow moguls are not only fighting for tax cuts, but for cuts in public spending that will not affect them either.  At a minimum, Buffett is showing off the contrarian view that made him rich. Buffett provides an interesting contrast to Congress, where arguments against interest are as common as snowballs in August. Congress is, by some measures, more divided than at any time in the past 120 years. We badly need Congressional leaders who will argue against their political interest: Democrats who will fight waste, Republicans who will support short term fiscal stimulus. What we get instead is a culture of pledges designed to prevent this.

These pledges represent a promises not to think, not to negotiate, and especially, not to compromise. The pressure to sign them is intense. Only one leading Republican, Jon Huntsman, has refused on principle to sign pledges (although he joined the band of imbeciles in Iowa who promised to reject a hypothetical budget deal that offered ten times more spending cuts than tax increases).  Huntsman’s campaign is imploding and stuck in single digits. Certified theocrat Rick Perry, who looks from here to be the likely nominee, won’t even have Huntsman as VP. Democracy is built on negotiation and messy compromise. Pledges subvert this, and are fundamentally anti-democratic. Compromise means your interest does not always prevail — we don’t always tax the fella behind the tree. A leaders takes an oath of office and recites a pledge of allegiance. That’s all they should commit to: on principle, no leader should ever sign an interest group pledge.


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