Heeding Warren Buffett’s provocative advice from a month-old New York Times commentary, President Obama has proposed the “Buffett Rule”—a so-called millionaire’s tax that Buffett boldly predicted would be welcomed by his fellow super-rich.But you won’t guess who refused to take a stand on whether they’re for or against such a policy?
To name a few, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, Google CEO and cofounder Larry Page and Disney Bob Iger.
They are among some 20 of the richest liberal-minded moguls and high-earning executives in media and tech whom I informally polled on the wrenching national issue of tax equality.
“I’m an observer in a complicated world,” replied former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, declining to comment.
Such steadfast reticence is remarkably surprising, given the makeup of the survey audience.
Not only do fabulously wealthy media and tech leaders revere Buffett, with their presence over-indexing in his social and business circles.
But even more notably, this elite also presides over industries bulging with election-year campaign dollars for President Obama. The entertainment industry flooded his coffers with some $2.53 million in this year’s first half.
And his scheduled fundraising swing through Hollywood on Monday will collect as much as $35,800 per couple.
I conducted the informal poll in the weeks since the Times published a lightening-rod opinion piece by Buffett on Aug. 14. However, the polled was completed before Obama announced the “Buffett Rule” last week, taking dead aim at the income of his richest political supporters.
Under the headline, “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich,” Buffett basically argued that fairness demands he and fellow mega-wealthy citizens be slapped with a tax rate at least as rich as what the struggling middle-class currently pays.
“I know well many of the mega-rich and, by and large, they are very decent people…” wrote the nation’s second wealthiest citizen ($39 billion). “Most wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes… particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.”Based on the overall poor response to my survey, however, projecting whether Buffett is right or wrong would be a joke. To be sure, a handful of media and tech’s Who’s Who responded substantively. But hardly should conclusions be drawn from the tiny sample of divergent responses.
David Geffen, for example, eagerly concurred with the legendary Berkshire Hathaway chairman. “I completely agree with Buffett,” said the multibillionaire entertainment impresario and investor.
So, too, does CEO Jeff Immelt of GE, who wooed Buffett to invest $5 billion at the height of the economic crisis. Immelt, who’s also Obama’s volunteer jobs-creation czar, “agrees with Warren and is OK with paying higher personal taxes,” a GE spokesman said. “Is that clear?”Through a spokesman, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg—one of Obama’s earliest major financial backers—also embraced Buffett’s position “on this issue.”
Barry Diller, however, parted ways with Buffett, his long-time friend. “I agree with Warren Buffett on most everything but on this issue I demur,” the hugely well-off Internet mogul replied by email. “I do not believe that ordinary income should be taxed at a higher rate.”
Diller does call for a complete tax-code overhaul to simplify it and close loopholes “through which tax avoidance occurs.”Straddling the fence is Buffett’s dear chum, Herbert Allen Jr., the billionaire media banker and host of the annual gathering of media and tech moguls in Sun Valley. Like Buffett, he (and Diller, too) is all for Uncle Sam’s grabbing more of the hundreds of millions, even billions, in yearly pay for hedge fund barons. They benefit from unwarranted bargain tax rates on “carried interests,” he argues.
Yet, Allen also believes Buffett and other voices are woefully understating current burdens on the rich, which in his view includes state, dividend and estate taxes. The national tax debate “is a fiction,” Allen told me. “What is the true [tax rate] that everyone should begin arguing about?”
Many more, including some with extraordinarily close ties to Buffett, wouldn’t add their prominent voices to the debate around whether their income bracket is bearing a “fair” share or not of the taxes.
Nor, in almost every instance, would they say why they refused to register a viewpoint.
“We are not commenting on the op-ed, so I apologise if I seem unhelpful,” replied Bill Gates’ chief publicist. The ties are unusually close between the Microsoft cofounder, No. 1 on the Forbes rich-list with a $59-billion fortune, and Buffett, who bequeathed his fortune to the Bill and Belinda Gates Foundation.At the same time, Microsoft employees and affiliates were Obama’s fourth largest contributor in the 2008 election, to the tune of $852,000.
Google, another of Obama’s major Silicon Valley backers, ignored repeated emails and phone requests for comment from co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who also is CEO. Nor did the search giant respond on behalf of chairman Eric Schmidt, who happens to be an unpaid Obama advisor.
In a report this week, Politico detailed an unmistakable bipartisan tilt of late by Google, implying perhaps a diminution of enthusiasm for Obama and Democrats.
Photo: Andrew Feinberg via Flickr
Multiple attempts to reach Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg also came up short. “We understand that you may be on deadline and will do our best to respond as quickly as possible,” Facebook press office twice replied since Aug. 22.Similarly, repeated efforts failed to lure CEO Michael Lynton of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who last April helped organise an Obama fundraiser on the studio lot that netted $35,000 from each of 60 guests.
At Comcast-controlled NBCU Universal, meanwhile, a top spokesman confirmed a rebuff by CEO Steve Burke, a director of Berkshire Hathaway whom Buffett has praised.
Burke voted for Obama in 2008. Comcast, where he also is a top executive, has pointed this out in the past to rebut speculation that top management is politically conservative. In fact, the cable giant has become one of Obama’s most generous show business contributors since the Administration approved Comcast’s $30-billion control of NBC Universal in January.
Not surprisingly, many media and tech executives were on vacation in mid-to-late August during the initial polling. Of course, that didn’t mean they couldn’t participate, as a relaxed Geffen proved. “I am in Turkey on my boat,” he emailed from Pelorus, his 376-feet super-yacht.
Reinvigorated and back at their offices after labour Day, several media elite, including Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and filmmaker Steven Spielberg, declined to comment or wouldn’t respond through spokespersons.
Disney, meanwhile, is firmly in the Obama-Buffett orbit. Its employees shelled out more than $84,000 in campaign contributions in the first six months of the year. And Berkshire Hathaway owned a major stake in Capital Cities/ABC, parent of the ABC and ESPN, when Buffett helped negotiate Disney’s purchase of the company sixteen years ago.
The company seemed at pains to respond for CEO Iger. On Aug. 22, a Disney spokeswoman brushed off the survey on his behalf. “Sorry, but [B]ob is out of the country this week and won’t be participating in this,” she emailed. By mid-September, Iger had ended the vacation but now was on a foreign business trip, she said. Within hours, after I pressed, the spokeswoman reported that Iger actually had declined to participate in the survey after he’d returned from vacation but that she’d neglected to mention it to me.
By contrast, the vacationing Michael Eisner, who preceded Iger as Disney CEO and negotiated the Capital Cities deal with Buffett, left behind instructions that he would reply to callers post-vacation. That didn’t mean he would answer the survey.
“I was in the deep woods of Colorado, and [a top assistant] told everybody when I surfaced from bears and mountain lions and snakes and rain, I’d call back…,” Eisner subsequently emailed. “I’m sorry you got the feeling that I would jump into the national conversations going on now.”
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