I'm looking at my pay stub. I don't do that often, but all this jabber about the Mitt Romney video, the most talked about video since Michael Jackson's "Thriller,'' has me curious.
Those of us who work for a wage, particularly a low to modest wage, were stunned to hear Mr. Romney say, "Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.''
How could this be true? Well, it can be true only if we narrowly define income tax as just federal income taxes; the Tax Policy Center says only 46 percent of potential taxpayers wound up paying any last year. But if that were all that was taken from paychecks, they'd look a lot meatier.
Uncle Sam's most regressive taxes aren't the ones that my stub dubs "Fed WH.'' They're "Fed MED/EE'' and "Fed OASDI/EE.'' Then there are the state and local taxes that begin on the first penny earned. No worker escapes those, though Social Security taxes end on dollars earned above $110,100. Thus these taxes take a higher percentage of income at the low end.
I don't want to pile on Mr. Romney. Members of his own party have ripped him enough already and, from the left, he's been treated like the piñata at an Occupy Wall Street rally. But driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike the other afternoon, trying to make a living like pretty much everyone else on the road, I heard some guy call Rush Limbaugh and blithely say that 10 percent of the people (yeah, he'd gotten it down to 10 percent) pay all the taxes. He wasn't corrected; Rush awarded him a new Apple gadget for his contribution to the national discussion.
So that's what got me looking at my pay stub. Like millions of other Americans, I've managed to dodge a healthy percentage (though not nearly all) of federal income taxes over the years by getting breaks for mortgage and property tax payments, my wishful bets on the 401(k), and those two cute little deductions my wife and I kiss goodnight. We're also allowed to deduct all the state and local income taxes we pay, so my federal income tax withholding is only about a fifth of the total taxes withheld from my check.
I suppose, if my wife and I earned even less money, we might be able to escape federal income taxes altogether. The Tax Policy Center suggests there would be no income tax on a family of four that earned less than $26,400 last year.
The working poor -- what a racket! Yet I don't think that's a strategy my wife and I are likely to try with college tuition payments not too many years down the road. Either way, those other taxes, the ones that take even more of my income, wouldn't go away. Like the fella in "Raising Arizona'' said:
"Gubmint do take a bite, don't she?"
That's why the suggestion that 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax is not just "inelegant," as Mr. Romney conceded, but wrong. Plenty already have called Mr. Romney on the fact that his 47 percent umbrella includes millions of good Republican retirees, too.
So if we're going to be having these arguments -- as we should -- about how little or how much government we want and how we're going to pay for entitlement transfers like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and the like, we ought to be more precise in what we say. In the real world of paychecks, there's no escaping income taxes of one kind or another -- as plenty in the room with Mr. Romney knew.
I'm not talking about the invitees to the closed-door, $50,000-a-person fundraiser where Mr. Romney made the statements that were secretly videotaped. I'm talking about those who kept working as Mr. Romney talked.
As he spoke to a seated crowd, the wait staff kept walking in and out of the shot, serving coffee and other refreshments. Did one of those waiters set up the camera that found Mr. Romney speaking of people who don't "take responsibility and care for their lives''?
I can't be sure, but you can bet your federal withholding that, when that fundraiser was over, at least one 47-percenter cleaned the toilets.
Brian O'Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.