Sunday, January 29, 2012

Willard's Loophole

Mitt Romney's tax returns from the last two years show that Romney pays in taxes a fraction of what Americans with one hundredth of his income pay. Because Mr. Romney's income is largely from investments, he pays a lower tax rate than if his income came from wages. This highlighted one of the great injustices of the tax code: wealthy people pay much less in taxes than the middle class.

Obviously, this has caused a lot of handwringing among Republicans, who have fought for this unfair tax system for decades. Romney's boosters are seeking to find a way to inoculate him against the "tax issue." Jed Graham
thinks that Mitt Romney has a way out of his tax return problem. If he promises to change the tax law, maybe that would help him.
Perhaps there is a route by which Romney can propose to end the tax break as part of a deal that lowers tax rates while broadening the tax base. That would narrow the gap between taxes on regular income and investment gains, thus making favorable treatment of carried interest less meaningful.
Andrew Sullivan piles on to this idea, concluding that if " Romney were to roll out a serious tax plan, President Obama could be in trouble." is wrong that this could work for Mr. Romney politically: proposing "a serious reform tax plan" would weaken his credibility, hurt him with his base, and reduce his contrast with the President.

Any effort to gain offense against Obama on taxes will be a losing strategy. The Democrats own this issue, and they have Romney's tax accounts, off-shore trusts, and Swiss bank accounts to prove it. The President has conspicuously fought for middle class tax cuts against a congres that was only concerned with lowering the marginal rate for the the highest-earning 1% of Americans. The problem for Romney is that he has long fought for lower taxes for the rich, more loopholes, and the carried interest preferred rate in particular. He has very publicly supported lowering capital gains taxes. If he were suddenly to campaign against his tax rate, it would be a visible and haunting flip-flop. Americans so far have reacted very negatively to Romney's tax revelations. Reinforcing the narrative of Romney (popular in conservative areas, no less) as a purely expedient politician would add fuel to the fire.

This change of heart would cost Romney the enthusiasm of his base. Romney's cores supporters would not be willing to support a candidate that publicly dismissed the exceptions that make wealth self-perpetuating. The reason that they're Republicans to begin with is to lower the effective tax rate for themselves and their aspirations. If they're lining up behind Romney, they're not evangelical, they're not foreign-policy oriented; they're either self-interested or deluded-self-interested economically. Taking away the core of Romney's policy promises would eviscerate his support.

Finally, Mitt Romney needs to win in a general election against President Obama. The President has co-opted nearly every centrist position in the American political pantheon. If Romney also begins to play towards the center, it would be hard for him to make the case that he's different. Sure, "Leadership" will be his campaign theme, but the Bain attacks call into question Romney's ability to care about his subordinates, and President Obama has quite the leadership record of his own (see: Bin Laden, 1957-2011).

Of course, Romney's crack team of postmodernist advisors have devised a strategy that doesn't have these pitfalls: claim that Romney pays an astronomically high tax rate by adding the tax rate of his firm with his personal tax rate. Mathematically, it makes no sense. Anyone who gets their paychecks from a corporation can pull the same trick. Warren Buffet's secretary still would have a tax rate 20% higher than Warren Buffet or Mitt Romney. It's clear that this kind of silliness is the Romney campaign's path forward; instead of acknowledging that there is something wrong with self-perpetuating wealth being taxed at a lower rate than labor, they've decided to simply make up numbers. Mitt Romney pays 13.9% of his income to taxes, 0.1% to Social Security and Medicare. There's something troubling the American people about that, and they won't be fooled.

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