Does Warren Buffett's Secretary Pay a Higher Tax Rate Than Her Boss?

Commentary about business and finance.
Sept. 20 2011 1:27 PM

Who Is Warren Buffett's Secretary?

Debbie Bosanek is not the talkative type, especially about tax reform.

Warren Buffett. Click image to expand.
Warren Buffett

For nearly two decades, Debbie Bosanek has fielded press calls, investor queries, and sundry other requests for her boss, billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Now, she herself is in the middle of a very bright spotlight.

On Monday the White House revealed its debt-reduction package. The most controversial, headline-grabbing portion of the $4.4 trillion plan is what Obama calls the "Buffett rule," which would ensure that people making more than $1 million a year pay higher rates than middle-income taxpayers. It is named for an often-repeated aphorism of Buffett's, calling for higher levies on the rich: Buffett says he pays a lower overall tax rate than his hardworking secretary does, and that is wrong.

"People making more than $1 million a year should not pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than middle-class families pay," Obama said in announcing his plan. "Warren Buffett's secretary shouldn't pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. … It is wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay higher tax rates than somebody pulling in $50 million."

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Whether Bosanek really does pay a higher tax rate than Buffett, or whether the working class pays a higher tax rate than the gilded super-rich, is hard to say. Bosanek certainly isn't chiming in.

Reached via telephone at Berkshire Hathaway's Omaha offices on Tuesday morning, she sighed and politely responded: "I'm sorry, I'm not doing any interviews on that."

"I understand you must be getting deluged."

"I've got to let you go. Bye-bye." With that, she hung up.

So what do we know about Debbie Bosanek? Not much. According to public records and press reports, she is 55 years old, lives outside of Omaha, and has short-cropped red hair. Mentioning her name at Gorat's, an Omaha steakhouse, will get you an extra boat of gravy when ordering the hot roast beef sandwich. Perhaps most important, she appears to have the admiration and loyalty of her boss, Warren Buffett, who has praised her by name in his famous investor letters and referred to her as his " invaluable assistant." (He also provided the tip about the gravy.)

Among journalists, she is known for giving brief, timely answers to the hundreds of requests that make their way to Berkshire Hathaway's offices every year. "We have read American Express' statement and we agree with it." The stockholder meeting is "just like Christmas" for the investor. Dozens of "Scheduling difficulties prevent Mr. Buffett from attending." Most of these, indeed, are nonstatements. "No comment." "There is nobody available to comment." "If we make a filing, it speaks for itself."

At one news conference, she reportedly wore a T-shirt that said, "Hi, I'm Debbie B. Warren is not available, and I have no comment."

She is a gatekeeper—someone designed to tamp down on the news, not to make it. She appears only a handful of times in Alice Schroeder's excellent, long biography of Buffett, The Snowball, described once as "amiable." But Schroeder says that Bosanek is a "lovely," "polite," and "competent" person.

"Her greatest skill is in sheltering Buffett from all the demanding people asking for money or for appearances," she says. "There's no public-relations or investor-relations person at Berkshire Hathaway. So her title might be secretary. But she's his personal assistant and the spokesperson for the whole company, when he is not available."

Schroeder says that someone as professional and skilled as Bosanek would easily make six figures on Wall Street. "But it's Omaha," she says, noting that nobody in the Berkshire offices makes much and guessing she makes less than $100,000 a year. "Warren does give her some Berkshire stock every year, either on her birthday or on Christmas."

It is certainly possible that Bosanek pays a higher portion of her income in taxes than Buffett. (In his recent New York Times op-ed, Buffett says he pays the lowest rate of all the staffers in his office.) Even with the gifted stock, she likely makes most of her money in wages. Buffett makes nearly all his money from investments, benefiting from a spate of breaks and loopholes. But as a general point, Buffett is wrong: In aggregate, richer earners do pay higher rates.

Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She can be reached at annie.lowrey@gmail.com.

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