Mitt Romney may not have intended it, but he is providing another good reason to be rich: the low tax rate. First, there was the $10,000 bet in the Republican debate Dec. 10. It must be great to be able to wager that much money as nonchalantly as most people bet a six-pack of beer.
Then on Jan. 17, Romney said that his $374,327 in speaking fees over one year is "not that much." Earth to Romney, these fees alone put you in the top 1 percent of income, and more than likely 98 percent of the population would be thrilled to make that much money.
Romney might be able to afford $10,000 bets because of his low tax rate. Romney reluctantly released his tax returns on Tuesday. He paid about $3 million in taxes on income of about $21.7 million, for an effective rate of 13.9 percent in 2010. The difference between that rate and the top rate of 35 percent would allow Romney to lose 456 wagers.
Unlike Romney, investment guru Warren Buffett willingly revealed his income and tax rate back in August. Buffet wrote in "Stop Coddling the Super-Rich," he made about $40 million and paid 17.4 percent in taxes. His employees paid taxes at rates from 33 percent to 41 percent on salaries around $60,000. Romney's and Buffett's compensation was more than 360 times what these employees made, yet their tax rate was about half.
Buffett has been advocating many years for a fairer tax system. In October 2007, he offered the following challenge:
I'll bet a million dollars against any member of the Forbes 400 who challenges me that the average [tax rate] for the Forbes 400 will be less than the average [tax rate] of their receptionists. So, … I'll give 'em an 800 number. They can call me. And the million will go to whichever charity the winner designates.
He remains unchallenged.
A few months ago, President Barack Obama advocated getting rid of this unfair tax quirk law and applying the Buffett Rule — "that people making more than $1 million a year should not pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than middle-class families pay."
The current regressive tax system, Buffett's proposal and Obama’s advocacy generate a more fundamental question. Why does source of income matter when determining tax rates?
The Federal Insurance Contributions Act (Social Security and Medicare) taxes are examples of a higher tax burden imposed on one source of income: wages. Can anybody explain why it is fair to charge most wage earners an extra 5.65 percent on their incomes? Why not put the extra burden on capital gains or dividend income? Just to be totally arbitrary, why not put the burden on people whose surnames begin with the letters A through F?
It's not even a matter of coddling the super-rich, although that is happening. It is a simple matter of fairness. Someone who makes $60,000 should not be paying a larger percentage of their income in taxes than someone who makes $20 million or $40 million.
It is time to change the tax code and set rates strictly on amount of income. Income source should be irrelevant. Otherwise, exceptions could always be added that force lower paid wage earners to pay higher rates.
A system based on amount of income would have several advantages. Such a system would simplify the tax code. Different tax rates for different sources of income would not be required. A proposal to add a tax exception to correct an inequity caused by a previous tax exception would be unnecessary.
Social Security and Medicare funding could be maintained by allocating a percentage of tax revenue to these programs, thus ending the highly regressive FICA taxes on individuals and making payroll processing easier. This same method could be used to eliminate FICA taxes on businesses.
In addition, the government would need to remove business tax loopholes and tax breaks so that all profitable companies actually pay income taxes. Perhaps the most egregious example is General Electric Co. In 2010, GE made $14.2 billion in profit, yet paid no federal income taxes.
For too long, wage earners have been subjected to unfair, regressive taxes on their wages while some millionaires and billionaires have been favored with much lower tax rates than their wage-earning counterparts. It is time to level the tax paying playing field by having tax rates determined only by the amount of income. Such a system would establish a tax system that is more equitable and progressive.
Employees who made $60,000 could buy about 1,800 six-packs if their tax rate was 13.9 percent instead of 35 percent. Unfortunately, at their current high tax rate, they can’t afford to drown their sorrows.
Joseph Sparks is an MU master's degree candidate. His blog can be found at www.sparksremarks.com.