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Robert Reich: Mitt’s 13-Percent Tax

August 20, 2012

Romney’s alleged 13% tax rate violates the core principles of tax fairness and equal sacrifice.

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Image from Flickr via 401(K)2012

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich.

Mitt Romney says “every year I’ve paid at least 13 percent [of my income in taxes] and if you add in addition the amount that goes to charity, why the number gets well above 20 percent.”

This is supposed to be in defense of not releasing his tax returns.

Assume, for the sake of the argument, he’s telling the truth. Since when are charitable contributions added to income taxes when judging whether someone has paid his fair share?

More to the point, Romney admits to an income of over $20 million a year for the last several decades. Which makes his 13 percent — or even 20 percent — violate the principle of equal sacrifice that lies at the core of our notion of tax fairness.

Even Adam Smith, the 18th century guru of free-market conservatives, saw the wisdom of a graduated tax embodying the principle of equal sacrifice. “The rich should contribute to the public expense,” he wrote, “not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more in proportion.”

Equal sacrifice means that in paying taxes people ought to feel about the same degree of pain regardless of whether they’re wealthy or poor. Logically, this means someone earning $20 million a year should pay a much larger proportion of his income in taxes than someone earning $200,000, who in turn should pay a larger proportion than someone earning $50,000.

But Romney’s alleged 13 percent tax rate is lower than that of most middle-class Americans who earn a tiny fraction of what he earns.

At a time when poverty is increasing, when public parks and public libraries are being closed and when public schools are shrinking their offerings and their hours, when the nation’s debt is immense, and when the 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million of us put together—Romney’s 13 percent is shameful.

By arrangement with Robert Reich.

Author Image

Robert B. Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future; The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, Beyond Outrage. His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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