Americans' feelings on the tax code

Brent Narog of Pinelas Park, Fla., wears buttons from Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign and his father's 1968 campaign during an event at the National Gypsum Company January 24, 2012 in Tampa, Fla. Mitt Romney just released his tax information to the public.

Kai Ryssdal: So we all now know more about Mitt Romney's tax rates than we ever thought we would. And we've been reminded about the difference between effective tax rates and marginal tax rates. Always handy.

But so what? I mean, does the whole brouhaha over who's paying how much in taxes really matter? What do Americans really think?

We talk to Frank Newport every week -- he's the editor-in-chief of Gallup -- for a segment we call Attitude Check. Frank, good to talk to you again.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you.

Ryssdal: So you guys were out in the field in the last week or two asking Americans how they feel about the rich and whether they should be paying more in taxes. What do we know?

Newport: Well, what we know is, what we just found actually Monday night: 63 percent of American say yes, they favor a proposal to increase taxes on higher-income Americans, and that's not a new finding we're replicating. What we and many other people have found consistently is no matter how you phrase it -- $250,000, $500,000 or more, $1 million or more -- over 6 out of 10, sometimes two-thirds, of Americans say yes. And of course, President Obama's well aware of those data.

Ryssdal: Well let's frame it as not just $250,000 or more, but say $20 million or more, given Mr. Romney's situation. How much more, then, do Americans think the rich ought to be paying?

Newport: We just asked Americans, kind of turned them into accountants. The question: How much do you think the wealthiest Americans should be paying? And drumroll, the answer was 24 percent. I think Romney paid 14 percent, so you do the math and he's 10 percentage points lower than where the average American thinks he should be as a wealthy tax-paying American.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you a methodology question: Was it open-ended -- 'Give me a percentage that you think the rich ought to be paying?' -- or did you give them multiple choice?

Newport: Total open-end. We just said to the average respondent on the phone, give us a percent, and our quoters typed it in and we did the average. I should say that about 3 out of 10 Americans, Kai, couldn't answer the question. You know, they scratched their heads. Particularly less well-educated older Americans didn't really have some conception at all. But when we put the numbers together of those who did give an average, it was 24 percent.

Ryssdal: On that 24 percent number, though, the arithmetic mean that they came up with -- is that everybody ought to pay 24 percent or just people who have a lot of money?

Newport: Just people who have a lot of money. The way we phrased it is the top 1 percent -- and we even used the word "wealthy" as the wealthiest Americans -- and that's where we got the 24 percent.

Ryssdal: What do you know about what Americans think about the tax code? My guess is that they don't like it. Do they understand that what happened -- just for instance with Mr. Romney but with many rich Americans -- is the way the law is written?

Newport: I think they do. I think the average American is very much in favor of changing the tax code in general, for many different reasons: efficiency; and also because they think, as we talked about, that it does favor the rich. So you've put your finger on what I think is a key political question out of all of this: Will Americans simply say that Romney the man was taking advantage of the system and it's the system that needs to be changed, and not blaming Romney at all? Or will Romney himself get the blame? And that's what we're going to have to wait and see.

Ryssdal: That's why they hold the elections. Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief at Gallup. The segment we do with them every week is called Attitude Check. Frank, thanks a lot.

Newport: You bet.

Ryssdal: Gallup gets its data by randomly, but statistically acceptably, dialing people up and asking 'em questions. We did something a little bit different this morning. Went out with a microphone and asked around.

Phil Kim: It is pretty ridiculous how much money he made.

Pablo Velazquez: He pays 13 percent tax, and I pay 25 percent for taxes, and I can barely afford the place where I live.

Joshua Spencer: I kind of agree with the super rich that have been asking to tax themselves.

Rick Reynoso: He makes a lot of money, and some people might think that 14 percent is not enough, but he does give a lot to charity.

That was Phil Kim, Pablo Velazquez, Joshua Spencer and Rick Reynoso all within about 10 blocks of Marketplace headquarters in L.A. this morning.

About the author

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and appears regularly on Marketplace.

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