First, as with the purchase of new car, almost nobody pays sticker price. To make Romney's "low" effective tax rate look bad, some news media irresponsibly compare his rate to that of a middle-class taxpayer's top marginal rate.
Just how misleading?
Assume Mr. Auto Mechanic is married, with two children. After offsetting income with exemptions, deductions for things like mortgage interest and assorted tax credits, Mr. Mechanic's effective federal income tax rate -- the percentage of income actually paid in taxes -- is much less than Romney's rate.
The liberal Tax Policy Center reports that 91.4 percent of individual taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes (AGI) between $50,000 and $100,000 pay less than 15 percent in taxes. And 43.9 percent of the $50,000-$100,000 AGI taxpayers pay an effective rate between 5 and 9.99 percent, while 4.6 percent of this group pay no federal income tax at all.
Many in the media forget about all those pesky deductions and credits and exemptions. Income tax brackets are marginal rates. The top marginal rate in a taxpayers' tax bracket DOES NOT apply to his entire income from dollar one.
New York Times' David Leonhardt understands this and, to his credit, explains it properly: "This disconnect between what we pay and what we think we pay is nothing less than one of the country's biggest economic problems. ... All told, most households pay less than 15 percent of their income to the federal government because of tax breaks, like the exclusion for health insurance, and because marginal rates apply to only a small part of a taxpayer's income. On the first $70,000 of a couple's taxable income, the total federal income tax rate is only 13.8 percent."
Why does Leonhardt comprehend this, while so many in his profession do not? Consider this.
Previous editions of a widely used high school textbook, "The American Pageant," by Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy, show charts on the federal deficit in historical dollars. When it came to the Ronald Reagan years, the graphic shows a rapidly increasing deficit. But as a share of the gross national product, Reagan's deficits are really much smaller than FDR's. By not showing the numbers as a share of the GNP, their charts make his deficits look outrageous. Of the textbook's depiction of the "outsized" Reagan deficit, University of Dayton history professor Larry Schweikart said, "The appearance to mislead seems intentional."
Well, ABC, NBC, NPR, is it intentional?