Thursday, July 19, 2012

Tax Returns? Who cares?

The election season is shaping up to be about as mindless as we've come to expect in recent cycles.  The country is facing a slide into a second recession (while not quite out of the first one) while accepting trillion-dollar deficits as the new normal.  We have a tax code that honest and intelligent citizens cannot ever be sure they're adhering to properly.  We have a health care system that is poised to get more expensive than ever and still leave millions uninsured.  And right now the biggest controversy is whether rich capitalist Mitt Romney will release tax returns for additional years. 

And spare me this crap about "Romney's tax returns indicate how he earned his wealth, and he made his business background a point in this campaign!"  John Kerry in '04 made his Vietnam experience a point in that campaign, and the Swift Boat ads had just as little bearing on whether Kerry had a good plan for the Iraq War as Romney's tax returns do for how he'd handle our economic mess.  This is just more "playing to the cheap seats" and as a swing voter who at least thinks he isn't an idiot, I'm unsold on this line of attack. 

Part of the reason I don't really care about the tax returns is because (a) Romney is a very rich man who made a lot of money over the past ten years; (b) very rich people who make a lot of money spend a great deal of money hiring the best tax professionals to make sure that they're paying the least amount of tax possible but doing so legally; and (c) Romney has had political ambitions at least since 1994 when he ran against noted secretary-killer Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate, so the idea of there being something illegal that could be subject to an IRS audit--an audit that is far more likely for a high earner than the average taxpayer--is remote.  The most scandalous thing that could come out of this is that Romney made a hell of a lot of money and paid a very low rate--something we already know from the tax returns he's already released.  And if this outrages you, then you should have a bigger beef with the president who failed to fix our tax code when he had a Democratic Congress for two years.

And more to the point, the shenanigans that allow big earners to pay very low rates on their earnings--by taking it as investment income, for example, rather than ordinary income, as well as a gazillion deductions and exclusions and credits oh my--is really the result of one thing.  Congress has historically loved the idea of social engineering via our tax code--encouraging us to buy homes, invest in things, etc.--and once they get started it creates a mess where rates need to be extra high to cover all the loopholes.  If you don't like it, and you blanch at the idea of Warren Buffet and Mitt Romney paying a smaller percentage of their income in tax than their secretaries do (secretaries that should at least be glad they weren't drowned by Ted Kennedy, who has a tendency to drown his secretaries), then ask your Congressman to simplify the tax structure to get rid of all that.  It's much harder to game a system that treats actual income all the same and has no loopholes.

There are good arguments for both Romney and Obama to be making this year--about how realistically they'll enable the economy to recover and straighten out our books, as well as the proper role for the government in all this.  Sure, that'll also mean negative attacks on the other guy's plan.  But as long as we're fighting over how unfair it seems that very rich men are able to make the system work for them--rather than how realistically to fix the system--we'll end up with a crippled system next year, no matter which boob wins this one.

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