A friend wrote to a group I’m part of:

Some folks I know who are at pre-IPO companies are really opposed to Warren Buffett’s support of raising taxes on the ultra-rich, saying that Buffett is helping keep a glass ceiling in place between them and being super rich.

They say we shouldn’t discuss politics in public, because then people won’t like us and we’ll die alone in a gutter. So after much deliberation, I decided to risk ending up in the gutter and posted my response to my friend’s post:

My Response

And thus we find the problem: the vanishingly small percentage of people who stand to benefit from low tax rates on the rich are vocally opposed to changes.

I’m surprised at how vehement and negative my reaction is to your friends’ outrage.

First of all, it’s stupid to complain about taxes and ignore the rest of the costs of their equity.

Tell your friends if they are concerned about increasing their take, they should lobby for the investment banking fees that get withheld from their IPO proceeds to get capped at some rational number. The banking fees are financial rape, but since they’re “standard,” no one bothers to protest. And they should read the prospectus carefully to see how badly their stock and options got diluted by sweetheart deals in the footnotes.

Speaking of which, do they track outstanding shares on a weekly basis and calculate their ongoing dilution? Or market fluctuations? If not, why not? Those effects can have far more effect than the tax rate differences. Did they quiz the founders on the dilution that last round of funding brought, and whether the return to your friends was negatively affected? Was that last round really necessary? Did those capital improvements really need to be made pre-IPO? Etc. Most people cry foul when the government wants a share, but ignore all the others who take a bite. They don’t ask whether those others are providing value for their money.

I’ve been through 4 IPOs and they’ve all been feeding frenzies. Of all the parties who lifted significant sums (sometimes many millions) out of the transaction, at least the government provides something in return:

  • A stable system of contracts, which makes IPO-able business possible in the first place.
  • A public infrastructure that gives them electricity, water, food, etc. so they can spend their time building their business instead of worrying about the logistics of running a server farm when power is spotty and only available for part of the day.
  • Financial markets that, no matter how corrupt individual players may be, at least provides liquidity for those IPO-bound friends.
  • A justice system that enforces the contracts allowing business to rely on them.
  • Etc.

Perhaps your friends should learn something called gratitude for having the privilege of living in one of the very few times in human history where we had an infrastructure that afforded them any chance at an IPO, combined with the incredible luck to be at a company that can viably go public (which only ~.02% of companies do).

On the other hand, I’ve been through 4 IPOs—all when the tax rate was a lot higher than it is now—and still have to work for a living. Maybe I’m just bitter and begrudge your friends a lifetime’s worth of free money without them having to contribute to the upkeep of the system that made it all possible.

How rich is an ultra-rich person?

Most people have no idea how truly ultra one must be to be one of the ultra-rich. Let’s tie the numbers to something real:

A million dollars is 25 years’ income for an American median family (median income is about $40K)

Ten million dollars is 250 years’ income.
100 million dollars is 2,500 years’ income.
A billion is 22,500 years’ income.
Ten billion is 225,000 years’ income.

John Chambers stashed four of those overseas to avoid taxes. Bill Gates has four of those in his bank account. In other words, enough money for a family of four to live at an American median standard of living for a million years, ten times as long as our species has existed.

Explain to me the value system in which there is any way to justify that concentration of wealth.

Yes, the mechanism of the system allows that to be accumulated by one person. But to argue that somehow we should be concerned about his tax rate seems bizarre. Honestly, a 100% marginal tax rate seems perfectly reasonable to me. He has enough to survive for a million years. No matter how hard he works, or what he contributes, he doesn’t need a single cent more.

(Nor do I believe his contribution to the human race approaches the contribution a family of four would make over a million year timespan, no matter how much one may like Windows.)

Tell your friends to use their after-tax proceeds to start another company that’s more successful, only they can do it in another country with a more favorable tax structure. I suggest Haiti. Port-a-Prince is looking for commerce.

Income Distribution and the Ultra-Rich

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