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A Few Questions, Answers About Mitt Romney's Taxes

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney arrives to deliver a speech ahead of the State of the Union presidential address at National Gypsum Company in Tampa, Fla. on January 24, 2012.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney arrives to deliver a speech ahead of the State of the Union presidential address at National Gypsum Company in Tampa, Fla. on January 24, 2012.

Mitt Romney has filed his tax returns — to the voters. And to no one's surprise, the former Massachusetts governor, private equity firm exec and GOP presidential contender makes a tidy sum.

NPR asked William Gale, co-director of the Brookings Institution's Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center; Alan Viard, a resident scholar who specializes in federal tax and budget policy at the American Enterprise Institute; and Victor Fleischer, a professor of law specializing in tax at the University of Colorado Law School, to comment on the controversy surrounding Romney's income and the taxes he pays.

Q: How could Mitt Romney, a millionaire several times over, pay a tax rate lower than many middle-income Americans?

Viard: At the higher income range ... how much individual income tax you pay is heavily dependent on whether your income is long-term capital gains and qualified dividends on the one hand, or whether it's so-called ordinary income on the other hand. The statutory rate differential really tells the story; you have a 35 percent statutory rate on income [at the top] and a 15 percent statutory rate on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.

Q: Does the middle class as a group bear the largest portion of the federal tax burden?

Gale: It depends on what you call the middle class. People who are in the 95th percentile think of themselves as the middle class. If you think of the middle class as the 30th to 95th percentile, you probably get that answer.

Fleischer: The very rich still end up contributing the most in federal income taxes. After all, they have most of the income, even if it is not always taxed at the highest rate.

Q: Why would Romney's effective tax rate be so much lower than other millionaire politicians?

Viard: If a person has a large portion of their income from long-term capital gains and qualified dividends, then their individual tax rate is going to be much lower than it would be for someone else in the same income bracket whose income is largely of the ordinary variety. If you look at the upper-income groups, I think there is a great disparity in that regard. The high-income levels are a really heterogeneous group — there are some whose income comes largely from wages; people in very high-paying jobs such as corporate executives, athletes and entertainers. That's going to be in the 35 percent bracket. Then there are others whose income is almost exclusively in capital gains in dividends and they're going to be getting that 15 percent rate.

Fleischer: Mr. Romney's average tax rate is about 14 percent because most of his income comes from something called carried interest. Carried interest is a percentage of profits that a fund manager receives as compensation for managing someone else's investments. What's unusual about the situation is that Mr. Romney isn't paying a low tax rate because he's sitting on investments that he made — lots of rich people do that. He's paying tax at a low rate because his labor income is taxed as if it were capital gain.

Gale: [Also] ... clearly Romney gave a significant amount to charitable organizations.

Q: Are there other special tax breaks available to someone in the highest income bracket that average Americans would not get?

Gale: The two obvious ways are exclusions and deductions. Exclusions never show up on the tax form to begin with. I'm guessing, just guessing, that that's big here. But, we don't know, because by virtue of them not being on the tax form, no information on them is provided when the tax form is released.

Fleischer: Carried interest is just one of the tax breaks that some rich people — in this case investment fund managers — can take advantage of. Other breaks include large retirement accounts, deferring income offshore, shielding business income in trusts, and avoiding payroll taxes on small-business income. For Mr. Romney, the biggest tax breaks are carried interest, taxed at 15 percent, and a huge IRA, which defers a lot of his income until later.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.