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Does Warren Buffett's Secretary Really Make Over $200,000?

Warren Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek.
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Warren Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek.

Forbes contributor Paul Roderick Gregory got some attention with his post Wednesday afternoon headlined "Warren Buffett's Secretary Likely Makes Between $200,000 and $500,000/Year."

Buffett's assistant, Debbie Bosanek, is in the news after sitting in Michelle Obama's box for Tuesday's State of the Union address in which President Obama repeated what Buffett has been saying for years: "Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary."

It's part of Obama and Buffett's argument for higher tax rates on the nation's wealthiest taxpayers, with the implication that a secretary doesn't get paid all that much and thus it is unfair she is paying a higher tax rate than her extremely wealthy employer.

Gregory appears to be trying to poke a hole in that argument by saying that at her supposed income of $200K to $500K, Bosanek "is scarcely the symbol of unjustice that Obama wishes her to project."

He assumes Buffett's tax rate is around 15 percent since most of his income comes from capital gains. Then, looking at IRS data, Gregory finds that:

"... taxpayers earning an adjusted gross income between $100,000 and $200,000 pay an average rate of twelve percent. This is below Buffett’s rate; so she must earn more than that. Taxpayers earning adjusted gross incomes of $200,000 to $500,000, pay an average tax rate of nineteen percent. Therefore Buffett must pay Debbie Bosanek a salary above two hundred thousand."

While we have no idea what Bosanek's compensation actually is, it does appear that Gregory's argument is based on an "apples to oranges" comparison.

Warren Buffett's assistant Debbie Bosanek speaks with NBC's Tom Brokaw in this frame grab from a 2007 report on Buffett's call for higher taxes on the super-rich.
Warren Buffett's assistant Debbie Bosanek speaks with NBC's Tom Brokaw in this frame grab from a 2007 report on Buffett's call for higher taxes on the super-rich.

Buffett's "office staff" example, as laid out in his New York Times op-ed last fall, is that his total 2010 federal tax bill — "the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf" — was 17.4 percent of his taxable income.

In that op-ed, Buffett says that using the same calculation method, that was 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."

Gregory's conclusion is based on just income tax rates, not payroll taxes, compared to adjusted gross income, not taxable income.

As Forbes personal finance staffer Janet Novack wrote in October, based on a letter Buffett sent to Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Buffett's effective federal tax rate was just 11.06 percent of his AGI. Novack writes in a comment under Gregory's post that "just based on AGI" Buffett "pays an income tax rate below the rate for those with AGI of $100,000 to $200,000."

While it is possible Buffett pays his assistant a six-digit salary higher than his own $100,000 per year, there does not appear to be any real evidence to support a claim that she "must" be making more than $200,000 a year.

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