There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," Mitt Romney told donors in a $50,000-a-plate Florida fundraiser that was secretly recorded in May and released by Mother Jones this week. In an unfortunate choice of words, Romney described those 47 percent as people who "are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."
Factually, Romney was in the right neighborhood. The Tax Foundation's William McBride has found that estimates of the number of Americans who do not pay any federal income tax range from 41 to 51 percent.
Rhetorically, Romney was in the wrong part of town. His poor choice of words gratuitously insulted folks such as seniors who spent a lifetime paying into the system.
Romney also hit on a truth: The percentage of filers who pay payroll taxes for Social Security but not federal income taxes has grown a lot — from 27 percent in 2001 to 42 percent in 2009.
There are solid reasons behind Washington's decision to increase tax credits for parents and the working poor over the years, but the result is an America in which close to half of voters can support any scheme designed to expand the scope of federal government, secure in the knowledge that they likely will not have to pay for it.
Though pundits have hit Romney for his truly awful choice of words, the fact that almost half of Americans pay no federal income taxes does not paint a pretty picture.
Then there's the other side of the coin. While close to half of filers pay no income tax, McBride found that the top fifth of taxpayers pay 94 percent of federal income taxes, and the top 2 percent of earners pay more than half of the country's federal income tax revenue. President Barack Obama wants to increase the top 2 percent's federal income tax rate, from 35 percent to 39.6 percent — in the name of "fairness."
The mystery is why. Supporters have argued that Obama's tax increase on the top 2 percent would help pay off the $16 trillion national debt. They should know better. The Obama tax increase would fund the federal government for about a week — at the risk of giving big businesses another reason to sit on their capital instead of hiring new workers.
If it were to depress employment, the Obama plan would stand to cost federal coffers more money than it would generate.
Romney went on Fox News Channel on Tuesday to explain his recorded remarks. "I think people would like to be paying taxes," Romney told Neil Cavuto. "The good news is, if you're doing well enough financially, that you can pay a tax. And the problem (is) right now, as you see in this country, so many people have fallen into poverty that they're not paying taxes."
That sounds much better.