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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, to presidential politics and a question of taxes. A couple days ago, Mitt Romney said this about the income tax rate he pays:

MITT ROMNEY: What's the effective rate I've been paying? It's probably closer to the 15 percent rate than anything, 'cause my last 10 years, I've - my income comes overwhelmingly from investments.

CORNISH: So why does a multimillionaire pay a rate of just 15 percent on his income? After all, the top income tax rate is 35 percent. Many middle-class people pay over 20 percent.

We asked NPR's John Ydstie to explain. Hello there, John.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So what's the deal? Why does Mr. Romney get such a low rate?

YDSTIE: Well, as Mr. Romney said, most of his income came from investments. So it came in the form of dividends or capital gains - that is, the increase in the value of his investments. They're both taxed at a lower rate than what's called ordinary income, the salaries most of us make going to the office, or going to the factory.

CORNISH: And what's the rationale behind that?

YDSTIE: Well, the theory has been that if you tax investment income at too high a rate, you'll discourage investment, and you'll crimp economic growth and job creation. But it is somewhat controversial - and not in the least because most of the people who pay that lower rate are well off.

In fact, 70 percent of the benefit goes to the top 1 percent of income earners. It's the rate paid by hedge fund managers and private equity managers - like Mr. Romney when he was at Bain Capital - and big investors like Warren Buffet.

Of course, Buffet is quite famously appalled by this situation. He says it's not fair that he pays a lower rate on his massive income than his secretary pays on her middle-class income.

CORNISH: And, of course, I mean, Warren Buffet says it's not fair, but does a 15 percent rate actually benefit the economy enough to justify this?

YDSTIE: Well, I've been told by a number of economists that there are no studies that prove that this is the case. It's essentially an argument that a lower capital gains rate boosts growth. And they say it makes some good sense when it comes, especially, to venture capital.

CORNISH: Right. Venture capital is the kind of money that helped create companies like Microsoft and Apple. Venture capitalists helped back Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, right?

YDSTIE: Right. And they created huge numbers of jobs and boosted the economy, and we want to encourage that. But the problem is, Congress hasn't been able to limit the tax break to that group. And it turns out that venture capital income represents less than one-tenth of the income that enjoys this low, 15 percent rate.

If you sell stock in Ford or General Mills and make a profit, you get the lower rate. If you sell real estate and make a profit, you get the lower rate. But basically, that's just a change of ownership and doesn't make much contribution to economic growth or job creation.

CORNISH: So it sounds like economists are saying that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense that this kind of income - investment income - is taxed at a lower rate than regular wages and salaries.

YDSTIE: That's right. And in fact, the difference between the 15 percent capital gains rate and the top 35 percent for ordinary income, encourages people to create tax shelters that actually allow them to claim their income as capital gains. And those tax shelters produce a huge amount of inefficient economic activity. In the past, things like investing in office buildings that stand empty, or city people buying tractors - not to mention you have very smart people creating tax dodges, and they could be inventing more useful things that actually do create jobs.

CORNISH: And it's become a hot button issue on the campaign trail, but is there any interest politically in changing the tax provisions?

YDSTIE: Well, I don't think we have any critical mass, politically, but there's a good deal of agreement that the tax rate on investment income should be the same as for ordinary income. The president's bipartisan deficit reduction panel suggests that as part of its budget reforms. Of course, there's also a lot of interest in keeping this rate low by some very powerful people, so I wouldn't hold my breath.

CORNISH: NPR's economics correspondent, John Ydstie. John, thank you for talking with us.

YDSTIE: You're welcome, Audie.

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