The new hot topic in politics this week is the Buffett rule, the President’s plan to ensure that people making over 1 million dollars a year pay at least 30% of their income in taxes. I was curious about the potential effects this plan would have on giving to non profit theaters. Well, don’t worry, it turns out, it will have no effect at all, even if it ever passes congress. The Buffett rule has an interesting exception, it still allows for tax exemptions for charitable giving, including giving to the arts. For many this will be reason to rejoice, it ensures that the stale loaf of bread that is American theater will stay on the shelves for a few more years. I do have to wonder though, what makes arts giving so important that it outweighs the other tax expenditures that the Buffett rule would eliminate.
I don’t think it is too cynical to suggest that part of the reason the Buffett rule has come into vogue, is that it highlights the paltry sum that Mitt Romney pays in taxes compared to his income, about 15% (in fairness the President only pays 20%). So why does Romney only pay 15%? The answer is capital gains. The capital gains tax rate is 15%, so when the vast majority of one’s income come from investments, the lower rate applies. So why should this be? The justification for low capital gains rates is that money used to invest promotes new business and jobs, it allows companies to attract investors by offering those investors a tax benefit. This should sound familiar to proponents of non profit theater. 501(c)3 theater companies attract donors by offering those donors a tax benefit as well.
So essentially, the argument from the left is that it is immoral for individuals to defer payments to the general operating fund of the federal government simply because they happen to be investing in profit earning companies and taking significant risks while doing so. However, it is perfectly proper for those same millionaires to defer payments to that same general fund if they happen to be contributing to Roundabout’s production of “Anything Goes”. I humbly submit that this is absurd. The notion that millionaires who give to major NFP institutions which pay their CEOs six figure salaries, while gaining myriad social advantages (galas, special tickets, names etched in frosted glass) and taking no economic risk have a moral superiority to millionaires who risk their money on companies with much broader fiscal impact on our society is silly. We don't have enough money in Washington’s coffers for food stamps and unemployment insurance? Take it from GE and Walmart, but for G-d’s sake, the Public simply must have enough money to pay movie stars whatever movie stars get paid to perform Shakespeare in the park again and again and again.
UPDATE: I found this article on Firedoglake that outlines just how art giving can be used to get millionaires under the 30% tax minimum.