NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- We're in the middle of the Giving Season, it seems.Everywhere you turn, someone wants people to give, as long as the word "people" is defined as "everyone but us." Yesterday, a supermarket checkout clerk asked me to take $1 from my change to fight childhood autism -- which I gladly did, though it occurred to me, why doesn't this supermarket take $1 from its own coffers, rather hitting up its customers for cash? In that same spirit, Bank of America ( BAC) wants the holders of its debit cards to give $5 a month to its favorite charity -- Bank of America -- for the privilege of using its debit cards. Meanwhile, Starbucks ( SBUX) Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz will soon be asking customers to pay $5 into a program to provide loans for small businesses. The recipients will get a wristband, just as you do in a club to show you're not gate-crashing. And then we have Warren Buffett, seemingly bucking the trend. He is willing to dig into his pockets and actually pay, rather than suggest that people other than himself fork over cash. He originated what has come to be known as the "Buffett Rule," which holds that millionaires should pay a greater share of their taxes. I say "seemingly" because it emerged the other day that Buffett isn't really in favor of the Buffett Rule after all. In fact, he has just taken a major step toward seeing it never sees the light of day. In a CNBC interview, it emerged that Buffett doesn't actually endorse increasing taxes for millionaires, or even multi-millionaires. "My program would be on the very high incomes that are taxed very low," he said. "Not just high incomes. Somebody making $50 million a year playing baseball, his taxes won't change. Make $50 million a year appearing on television, his income won't change. But if they make a lot of money and they pay a very low tax rate, like me, it would be changed by a minimum tax that would only bring them up to what the other people pay."
Ah, there's the rub. You see, there are very few people in America who are "like me," when "me" is Warren Buffett. So it turns out that Buffett is against raising taxes on rich people, ordinary millionaires, and only favors increasing taxes on multi-multi-multi millionaires and billionaires, like him. Except that the chances of people like Warren Buffett actually being required to pay more in taxes -- as much proportionally as their secretaries, as Buffett famously bemoaned -- is now a lot less, thanks to Buffett. As sensibly proposed by President Obama, the Buffett Rule (or perhaps I should say, the "so-called Buffett Rule") would increase taxes on people with incomes of over $250,000 a year -- not the super-minute number of people making, say, $250 million. Buffett said in the interview that he thought it would cover 50,000 people, but I think that is a wild overestimate. The bottom line is that Buffett has pretty much put the kibosh on the so-called Buffett Rule, or at the very least dramatically undercut it. The proposal didn't have much chance of passage in the first place, and now, thanks to Buffett's "clarification," it's probably even more of a dead letter. Now, class, what do we learn from this, apart from it being an example of a media-savvy billionaire pandering to public opinion with a meaningless PR gesture? I think that what this demonstrates is that we need a new kind of "Giving Pledge." Buffett has pledged to give away most of his fortune to charity, and that's great. But it seems to me that if he truly wants to perpetuate a legacy of public-spiritedness, he needs to do more than say the right things on national television. He needs to talk the talk, as well as walk the walk. I call it the "Walk the Walk Pledge." Instead of advocating -- and then de-advocating -- a policy of taxing the wealthy, Warren Buffett should dig into his own pockets and voluntarily give the government enough in taxes so that he is actually taxed at the same rate as his secretary. Or he might want to consider following in the footsteps of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and leaving his entire estate to the United States government.
Instead of Howard Schultz asking customers of his overpriced, over-roasted coffee to fork over $5 to fund job growth, Schultz could reach into his own pockets and pay $5 into the loan fund for each person who walks into one of his stores, even if they're only going to use the bathroom. Then, after he's solved the small-business lending problem, he can devote his energies to paying his employees a decent wage and stop fighting their efforts to unionize. Last but not least, Bank of America could cancel its nickel-and-diming of its poorest customers and loosen up its lending practices. None of this is going to happen, of course. As the aforementioned Oliver Wendell Holmes once pointed out, "A man is usually more careful of his money than of his principles." He might have added, "... if he has any." Gary Weiss' forthcoming book, AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, will be published by St. Martin's Press on Feb. 28, 2012.