Mitt Romney’s Taxes

All the major papers are devoting lots of resources to covering Mitt Romney’s tax return, putting the national spotlight on how taxes, and particularly on how little taxes the ultra-wealthy actually pay.

It’s top story right now on the home pages of The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and No. 2 on the Financial Times’s home page, though has it stuffed “below the fold” on my laptop’s screen.

Everybody focuses on the fact that Romney paid a 13.9 percent federal tax rate on his $21.7 million in income in 2010. That’s so low because our tax system favors investment income, which is all but by definition taken in by the wealthy (50 percent of capital gains over the last twenty years went to the richest 0.1 percent), over work income. The theory is that incentivizing investment by lowering tax rates boosts growth, though decades of experience has shown otherwise.

So the effective tax rate for a doctor or engineer making $400,000 a year working nights and weekends is about twice as high as what Romney pays on his investment profits, and he doesn’t even to work to manage his own money.

Some of the most revealing context is left out of most of the press reports: How Romney’s tax rate compares to most Americans’. Most of the stories focus on how Romney’s tax rate is lower than other wealthy folks, but don’t give us numbers. The NYT and LAT compare them to those of President Obama and Newt Gingrich, both of which are much higher. The Wall Street Journal doesn’t mention any comparisons.

The Post writes that “Romney’s overall tax rate is in line with that of the average American taxpayer,” but doesn’t give us numbers. Reuters does, thankfully, pointing out that the average American household pays 11 percent of their income in federal taxes, citing the conservative Tax Foundation (meantime, the average American household earns $54,000 a year, according to those same foundation numbers— less than Romney does in one day). The richest 400 people in the country, those making a minimum $109 million a year, paid an average 18.1 percent federal income tax rate in 2008.

The obvious question here, one also missed by most of the reports above, is what this means for policy. How would Romney’s proposed policies affect how much he pays?

Only The New York Times reports it in the stories I list above. It’s good to put it up high, in the fourth paragraph:

Mr. Romney’s own tax proposals would cut his federal income taxes by about 40 percent — but Mr. Gingrich’s proposal, which would abolish capital gains taxes, would almost entirely eliminate them.

That critical context should have been in all of these stories.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,