Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mitt's Tax Returns

Mitt Romney's tax returns. Why they are simultaneously unimportant and essential.

Let's start with the basics; there is almost definitely nothing illegal in Mitt Romney's tax returns. Even if he were doing something illegal, he can afford a good enough accountant that those things don't show up in his returns. So put felonies to the side.

Secondly, in general there probably isn't anything that interesting in his returns. What anyone is going to find is more of the same: a rich guy manages his money well and stays rich. Rich guy, through legal loopholes, is able to pay barely anything in taxes. Oh well. Mitt isn't the first rich guy to do so, and he won't be the last.

That brings us to why should anyone care? Two reasons: it exposes that the tax code is unfair, and Mitt is unable to convince voters of his higher qualities.

The tax code. With a good accountant and several million dollars a person is usually able to leverage the tax code so that they can keep much of that wealth and pay almost nothing on it. At first this sounds pretty reasonable—they make money and they should keep money. Except it kind of doesn't; right now there is no tax on capital gains, money earned through investments like Romney's. In a given year, Mitt has only to pay his investment banker and he earns money. Like $21 million. And almost all of it tax free.

To recap: with enough initial investment, multi-millionaires make money by doing nothing and don't pay taxes on it. Additionally, most of the money ends up gathering dust in a bank vault which stifles the economy because it does not trickle-down.

This isn't Romney's fault. He shouldn't even be sniped for it; he's following a cultural norm. And all indications suggest that he is extraordinarily generous with his funds. But he is under no obligation to pay the Federal government more than he owes.

Mitt's higher qualities. Mitt seems like a decent enough guy. Sure there is plenty of ego involved in being an elected official—that comes with the territory. Let's assume though that people fall on a pretty standard bell curve between a jerk and nice. Most people have a decent mixture of jerkiness and niceness. Get over it; no one is perfect. Mitt is supposedly with the rest of us: deeply passionate about his family and his future. Sometimes he can be selfish, sometimes rude, and other times clueless. Usually though, he's nice and he tries really hard to make the world better.

And this whole tax return business just doesn't open the voters up to perceiving those qualities. Understandably there is a certain amount of privacy afforded every family—even ones scrutinized heavily by the media. Yet that argument only goes so far. Realistically, a family is not up for political attacks. But how a candidate interacts with the government is pretty important, and probably one of the only things up for public attention that is private.

After all, politicians run the government and voters want to feel trust that these people can successfully navigate the arena—read not become corrupted by the power. Voters have very little to go on in terms of Mitt's character and positions—they tend often to be to the right of Obama but in concrete terms it's a little more vague. Mitt is a decent dude, but many are baffled by what ground he firmly stands on.

Certainly the DNC is ready to make attacks based off of what comes out of those returns. And that's probably not too fair. From the perspective of a voter though, it is perfectly reasonable to have some documents available for scrutiny—especially because it gives them a sense of the candidate.

Sometimes the cold political calculus of the race distorts the ultimate goal which is to represent the people. In this debate about whether or not to release tax documents, voters' needs have been left by the wayside. It is perfectly reasonable for the voting public (and the media) to request documents that have already been released in more recent versions.

It just sucks that it looks like a political maneuver.