Political Animal


September 22, 2011 10:40 AM Romney’s middle-class problem

By Steve Benen

I hate to be the one to break this to Mitt Romney, but he’s not a member of the middle class.

Mitt Romney suggested Wednesday that he feels the pain of the middle class.

At a town hall meeting here, the millionaire GOP presidential contender told his audience that he favors a tax policy that will help “those who have been hurt by the Obama economy.”

“And that’s the middle class,” Romney continued. “It’s not those in the low end; it’s certainly not those in the very high end. It’s for the great middle class — the 80 to 90 percent of us in this country.”

Look, I understand Romney may feel a little defensive about this. He did, after all, become very wealthy by laying off thousands of American workers. His similarities to Thurston Howell III don’t exactly scream “man of the people.” But the former governor’s net worth is pegged somewhere between $190 million and $250 million. If Romney is middle class, I’m on his short list of potential running mates.

On a more substantive note, Romney’s plan to help “the great middle class” is to allow those “earning $200,000 a year and less ought to be able to save their money tax-free, no tax on interest, dividends, or capital gains.” And how much would that benefit the average, middle-income earner? About $70 a year. No, that’s not a typo. Romney wants to give massive tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, but his idea of boosting the middle class is a tax break that hardly matters at all.

And in case this wasn’t quite enough, Romney also told voters in Florida yesterday, “I think it’s a real problem when you have half of Americans, almost half of Americans, that are not paying income tax.” It’s the second time this month that the former governor has raised the prospect of increasing taxes on those least able to afford it.

In case anyone’s forgotten, the relevant details matter here: millions of Americans may be exempt from income taxes, but they still pay sales taxes, state taxes, local taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare/Medicaid taxes, and in many instances, property taxes. It’s not as if these folks are getting away with something — the existing tax structure leaves them out of the income tax system because they don’t make enough money to qualify. Indeed, many are retirees who can’t earn an income because they’re no longer in the workforce.

Romney has now said more than once that he considers it “a real problem” that these lower-income Americans aren’t paying income taxes. It’s apparently a “problem” he intends to fix as president.

There’s certainly a case to be made that Romney is pursuing a bizarre version of “class warfare,” but even putting that aside, the leading Republican presidential candidate seems to now be on the record advocating higher income tax rates on the middle class.

I suspect voters will be hearing more about this in the coming months.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Tom Johnson on September 22, 2011 10:42 AM:

    Someone needs to start asking these candidates if they intend to raise taxes on people below median income, or whether they're just fostering resentment for political gain. It's a pretty easy question, really. They ought to have to answer it.

  • fostert on September 22, 2011 10:44 AM:

    You know what? Hedge fund manager don't pay any income tax either. They pay an interest carryover tax. I wonder why he doesn't complain about that.

  • walt on September 22, 2011 10:46 AM:

    I suspect Team Obama thinks Romney is their likely opponent, which goes a long way to explaining their new tack of economic populism.

    Romney has a couple of advantages - he's sane and he's articulate - along with several glaring disadvantages: he's a cariacture of right-wing privilege, his Mitt-flogs are profligate, and he's running on an economic program of shameless voodoo.

    I tell everyone I meet: if you vote Republican and you're not rich, you're an idiot.

  • c u n d gulag on September 22, 2011 10:48 AM:

    Mitt is a member of the Middle Class the way my unemployed fat ass is part of the "Job Creators."

  • zeitgeist on September 22, 2011 10:49 AM:

    lets assume, reasonably, that "middle class" means if we plot Americans by wealth or income, we anticipate a bell curve distribution, and the mean and the "thick" area within a couple of standard distributions is the "middle class."

    by definition, then, anything that "almost half of Americans" do or don't do mathematically must include a fair number of Americans in that "middle class" portion of the bell curve.

    so Romney, apparently innumerate, speaks a contradiction when he says he wants to help the middle class, but raise taxes from that half of Americans not paying any income tax.

    yes, i know all of you get this. i'm hoping maybe Mitt is a secret lurker of Benen's.

  • martin on September 22, 2011 10:49 AM:

    I would love to see the bell curve that gets 80-90% of the people in the middle class.
    Romney must live in some sort of economic Lake Woebegon where all the children are above average and everyone is middle class.

  • chi res on September 22, 2011 10:57 AM:

    So if 80 to 90 percent are middle class and deserve lower taxes, where does the 50 percent that don't pay taxes come from?

    I guess in Romney's America, taxpayers amount to about 150 percent of the population.

    You'd think someone on his staff could do simple math.

  • T2 on September 22, 2011 11:02 AM:

    pretty much all high level politicians are rich. Most were lawyers or doctors before politics. Some, like Romney and GWBush, were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Some, like Rick Perry, just managed to get to be a millionaire while drawing the modest salary of an elected official and the "gifts" from appointing rich men to important positions. Darn few on both sides of the isle at the national level are "middle class".
    The trick is to pretend middle class. Mitt can't do that. Rick can.

  • Mnemosyne on September 22, 2011 11:12 AM:

    Someone should ask Romney why it's bad for a family with three kids and a mortgage be able to use their deductions to not pay income tax, but it's A-OK for a corporation like GE to not pay income tax.

    Oh, wait, that's right -- because "corporations are people," but actual people aren't really people the way corporations are, right, MItt?

    (WTF? Why did captcha just try to present me with a mathematical equation that included symbols not on the keyboard?)

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on September 22, 2011 11:12 AM:

    Like my old science teacher used to say:
    "Getting awfully plural aren't WE"

  • Anonymous on September 22, 2011 11:13 AM:

    "I think its a real problem when you have half of Americans, almost half of Americans, that are not paying income tax.

    That's this year's "welfare Queen" comment. If it worked for St. Ronald . . . .


  • danimal on September 22, 2011 11:14 AM:

    Reminder: The "50% of Americans don't pay income taxes" is an extremely cherry-picked number. It was figured about two years ago, at the depth of the depression (that we somehow have convinced ourselves is a recession). While there always were, and always will be, some Americans who don't pay income taxes, in normal years the number is quite a bit lower than 50%.

  • Buford on September 22, 2011 11:16 AM:

    I have to pay single rates on my disability payments. Why can't the upper incomes pay?

  • SteveT on September 22, 2011 11:21 AM:

    Wouldn't there be substantially more people paying income taxes on the bottom end of the income scale if the Republicans hadn't passed their child tax credit?

  • atlliberal on September 22, 2011 11:30 AM:

    If 50% of Americans don't make enough money to pay income tax, the solution is to find them better jobs, not tax them more. I was happy to pay taxes when I had a good job, and would be thrilled with a job right now that pays enough to put me in a higher bracket.

  • chopin on September 22, 2011 11:41 AM:

    danimal @ 11:14, good point. Gee, I wonder if those who do the loudest complaining about this know who was responsible for creating the environment that spawned all those tax cheats.

  • Krowe on September 22, 2011 12:02 PM:

    Rent includes property taxes.
    No need to keep including the "in many instances" qualifier.

  • rrk1 on September 22, 2011 1:00 PM:

    Romney is always good for a laugh. The most laughable part is that he would try to paint himself as "middle-class". Even his 80-90% inclusion of the population as "middle-class" couldn't possibly include his level of income."With a net worth of between $190-250 M, his annual income would be, conservatively, between $5-10 M, and probably much more. How many people in the "middle-class" are in such an income bracket? His income is at the very least 100-200 times greater than the median family income of approximately $50,000.

    References to statistical analysis above are all very apt, however, one should remember that an ideal bell-shaped distribution curve that statisticians use to describe the spectrum of a particular population trait (like income) has the mean (average), median (the 50% point), and the mode (the greatest number of individuals in the population) all in the same place on the curve, thus providing a perfectly symmetrical curve that looks somewhat like a volcano. The hilly flanks of the volcano extend way beyond the central vent with less and less lava the further away you are from the source. The analogy is only to visualize the shape of the bell-shaped distribution.

    50% of the population are below the mean, and 50% are above the mean, and the greatest number of people are at exactly the 50% value. 66% of the population are included within plus or minus one standard deviation (a statistical tool defining the shape of the curve). 93% within two standard deviation, and 99+% are within three standard deviations. Where does that put the top 0.1% of the obscenely rich at the very top income level (and Romney is not nearly at the top)? So far out statistically that you need an extra sheet of paper to extend that part of the curve far enough, or thinking in volcano terms, about 100 miles away.

    Does anyone in their right mind believe that income distribution in this country fits the ideal distribution description? Does Romney?

    To say that 80-90% of the population are "middle-class" suggests that everyone within approximately two standard deviations is included, and that only 5-10% of the population are either at the low end or at the high end. The mean, median, and mode for income is far from equal, and while I don't know what the distribution curve actually looks like exactly, with a median of around $50,000 for a family, a mean that is much higher, and an unknown (to me) mode, it says that at the very least the distribution is bi-modal, if not tri-modal, like humps on a camel or several volcanic cones close together with a valley in the middle: that valley is the shrinking "middle-class".

  • meander on September 22, 2011 1:31 PM:

    I second @Krowe's comment above. When you pay rent on an apartment or house, you are helping to pay for the owner's property taxes. Thus, "in some instances" can go away.

    All Americans also pay gas/diesel taxes, either directly when filling up at the pump, or indirectly when buying something that traveled to the store on a truck, train or airplane (i.e., everything).

    At his new home at TNR, Timothy Noah had an interesting post about corporate personhood the other day, concluding that "How can corporations be people when it comes to the First Amendment and not people when it comes to the Sixteenth? They can't. Obama should therefore state that much as he would like to lower the corporate tax rate to improve the U.S. competitive position with respect to other advanced industrial nations, he is hemmed in by the Supreme Court. He cannot make the top corporate rate any different from the top personal rate until the Supreme Court reverses its Citizens United ruling. In the meantime, he'll maintain the top rate at 35 percent and raise it to 39.6 percent when the Bush tax cuts expire. As with families, he will impose this top marginal rate only on corporations that earn in excess of $250,000 a year. That's not very much for a corporation, but Citizens United is the law of the land. His hands are tied."

  • Texas Aggie on September 22, 2011 6:53 PM:

    meander, that's a really good point. I wish I had thought of it.

    "Romney also told voters in Florida yesterday, I think its a real problem when you have half of Americans, almost half of Americans, that are not paying income tax.

    I have the same problem but probably not exactly like the one Mitt has. My problem with this is that almost half the Americans don't make enough to pay income taxes, so what is he going to do to give them a chance to find work? But someone has to ask him if he pays taxes on his first $25,000 and if not, why should the Americans who make that have to pay. And what does he plan to do about the considerable number of Americans making much more than the median who are using loopholes to avoid paying income taxes as well?