The Wall Street Journal
January 20, 2012
How much the rich pay
Mitt Romney's disclosure this week that his effective federal tax rate is "probably closer to the 15% rate than anything" has created the predictable political uproar. The White House and its media allies figure they've now got their stereotype of the Monopoly man, albeit without his cane and top hat, who they can crush in their planned class-warfare campaign.
We're not sure if facts will matter in this cacophony, but someone should at least try to introduce a little reality into the debate, especially since Mr. Romney seems so unprepared to make the case.
Start with the fact that, like Warren Buffett, Mr. Romney said he makes most of his money from investments, not wages or salary. Thus his income is really taxed twice: once at the corporate tax rate of 35%, then again at a 15% tax rate when it is passed through to him as dividends or via capital gains from the sale of stock.
All income from businesses is eventually passed through to the owners, so to ignore business taxes creates a statistical illusion that makes it appear that the rich pay less than they really do. By this logic, if the corporate tax rate were raised to, say, 60% from today's 35% and the dividend and capital gains tax were cut to zero, it would appear that business owners were getting away with paying no federal tax at all.
This all-too-conveniently confuses the incidence of a tax with the burden of a tax. The marginal tax rate on every additional dollar of capital gains and dividend income from corporate profits can reach as high as 44.75% at the federal level (assuming a company pays the 35% top corporate rate), not 15%.
The Congressional Budget Office recently examined the distribution of federal taxes on various income groups. The report was ballyhooed by liberals as proof of rising income inequality, but that argument is for another day. What everyone has ignored is what CBO found about the relative taxes paid by different groups. And, lo, the rich pay more, which is probably why the press didn't report it.
The nearby table from the CBO report shows that in 2007 the average income tax rate paid by the 1% was 18.8%, compared to 4.2% for Americans in a broadly defined middle class from the 21st to 80th income percentiles. The poorest 20% on average paid a net negative income-tax rate of 5.6% because of the checks they receive for tax credits that are "refundable." These are essentially transfer payments redistributing income from the rich and middle class to the poor.
As for all federal taxes, CBO found that in 2007 the top 1% paid an average rate of a little under 30%, compared to 15.1% for middle-income earners. In calculating this overall tax burden, CBO takes account of payroll taxes, which moves the rate of the lowest 20% of earners into positive territory at 4.7%. CBO also apportions to individuals who are shareholders the tax that corporations pay on corporate profits.
The main point is that the average effective tax rate on the richest 1% is already twice as high as that of the middle class. No matter how many times Mr. Buffett asserts it, secretaries and plumbers do not on average pay a higher tax rate or less in taxes than do CEOs. Here is what the CBO concludes: "Taken as a whole, the federal tax system is progressive."
In any event, raising tax rates has not over time succeeded in increasing tax shares from the rich. When the top income-tax rate was as high as 70% in the 1970s, the top 1% paid about 19% of all federal income taxes. At the current rate of 35% the top 1% pay just under 40% of all income taxes. Liberals say this is because the rich earn a larger share of income. But when tax rates are lower, the rich have less incentive to seek tax shelters and more incentive to put their money to work in income-earning, revenue-producing ventures.
Mr. Romney said at Monday's Republican presidential debate that he would like to see a top income-tax rate of about 25%. Mr. Obama is seeking a rate closer to 42%, for starters. Mr. Romney's challenge is to persuade Americans that lower rates will mean more jobs and growth, and more revenues for the government. One certainty is that if he stays on his current path of playing defense, Mr. Romney won't deserve to be the GOP nominee because he's likely to lose the fall election.