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Tax the rich: Should millionaires really pay more?

The fight over raising levies on the wealthy, a theme of the 'Occupy Wall Street' protests, is about more than money. It's a clash over fundamental American values.

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As the economy continues to wilt, voices on all sides are getting louder and more aggressive. And concerns over taxation – a topic perennially debated among pundits, legislators, and economists, and simply griped about by everyone else each April – are spilling into mainstream America.

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The issue provokes strong opinions that don't always fall along class lines.

Four blocks from the protest, Richard Golle, a homeless Vietnam War vet and former stone-mason, sat on a stack of overturned mail crates, his back against a Chase bank's granite facade. At his feet was a paper coffee cup. The few nickels inside weren't enough to cover the bottom.

"They don't really understand the system," Mr. Golle said of the protesters. "The rich people are not oppressing the poor people."

"I'm a poor person, and I don't knock anyone that's rich," he added. "If you want them to spend their money to improve the economy, you've got to give them a tax break. You've got to give them something back."

No one downtown knew it on the first day of Occupy Wall Street, but the tax battles were about to intensify. That night, as McFarlane and his fellow protesters bedded down in the park, using their cardboard signs as mattresses, more news broke: President Obama planned to propose a new millionaire's tax, which he had named – what else? – the Buffett Rule.

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With an estimated net worth of $39 billion, Buffett is the second-richest man in America. When the "Oracle of Omaha" speaks, the markets listen. Yet he's been repeating the same one-liner for more than a decade.

"I'm paying taxes at a lower rate than my secretary ... and frankly I think that's crazy," Buffett said during a speech in 2000 at Columbia University in New York, where he endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in her first Senate bid.

Eleven years later, Buffett's refrain – "Tax me more!" – reflects the same stance: that low tax rates on capital gains favor wealthy investors over middle-class wage earners.

For the first time, however, the folksy tale of his receptionist has caught fire, eliciting a strong endorsement from the Oval Office and cries of class warfare from congressional Republicans. Forget Joe the Plumber. Warren Buffett's secretary is the new working-class hero of the Great Recession.

(For the record, Buffett has not one but several assistants. And none are exactly jumping to answer the call of history. Two of them, Carrie Kizer and Debbie Bosanek, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

When Buffett spoke of his beleaguered secretary back in 2000, his words made shallow ripples in the media, then sank from view. Today they've sparked a fierce debate across the country – and even helped inflame one around the world.

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