By Mary Kate Cary |
The revelation that Mitt Romney received an income of $21 million in 2010 and paid just 13.9 percent of that in federal income taxes has highlighted an enormous problem in our tax code. Income from investments (or income that is manipulated to appear to come from investments) is taxed at lower rates than income from work. And this is a huge benefit for the rich.
Technically, the breaks that Romney enjoys are available to anyone with investment income, but the vast majority of this type of income goes to the rich. We recently calculated that about a third of taxpayers with incomes exceeding $10 million get the majority of their income from investments and consequently pay an average effective tax rate of 15.3 percent.
We then looked at taxpayers with incomes between $60,000 and $65,000 and found that just over 2 percent get the majority of their incomes from investments. In fact, over 90 percent of the $60,000-$65,000 group get less than a tenth of their income from investments, and consequently pay an average effective tax rate of 21.3 percent. That's a higher effective tax rate than those multimillionaires who get most of their income from investments.
How do multimillionaires justify their low effective tax rates? Many, like Warren Buffett, admit that there is no justification at all, and have asked the president and Congress to reform the tax code. Buffett finds it offensive that he pays federal taxes at a lower effective rate than his secretary does.
Others argue that special breaks for investment income are necessary to encourage investment. This is absurd, given that people with money invest in order to profit and that is motivation enough. But this argument is even more absurd in the case of wealthy fund managers like Romney, who use a loophole to characterize even their income from work as investment income to enjoy the lower tax rates. (This is the loophole for "carried interest.")
Still others, including Romney himself, argue that much of their income represents corporate profits that have already been subject to the corporate income tax of 35 percent before they were paid out as stock dividends. This is nonsense. At least a third of Romney's income took the form of "carried interest," which is actually compensation for his work in managing other people's money, and this is certainly not corporate profits.
Even in the unlikely event that all of the rest of Romney's income did come from corporate stock dividends or gains on the sales of those stocks, there's no reason to think that the corporations involved paid 35 percent of their profits in corporate income taxes. We recently studied most of the Fortune 500 corporations that have been profitable for each of the last three years and found that their average effective tax rate over the three-year period was just 18.5 percent. Thirty of these companies paid nothing at all.
Warren Buffett is right. People like him, and Mitt Romney, should pay more to support the society that made their fabulous fortunes possible.
About Steve Wamhoff Legislative Director of Citizens for Tax Justice
Daniel Hanson Economics Researcher at the American Enterprise Institute
Vishnu Sridharan Program Associate with the Global Assets Project at the New America Foundation