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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Harry Reid, Jon Stewart, and Romney's Tax Returns

Without even trying, I've seen three different conservative commentators point to the fact that "even" Jon Stewart thinks that Harry Reid was unreasonable in repeating (or possibly inventing) unsubstantiated rumors to the effect that Romney hadn't paid any tax at all in the last ten years.  The commentators clearly missed Stewart's broader point -- that this kind of speculation is irresponsible no matter who does it, and that Republicans seem to do it a lot more than Democrats.  He followed the Reid piece immediately with clips from Fox News where the commentators were just sitting around spinning out reckless allegations based upon (e.g.) a couple of blogs that one of them had just read that morning.  The whole "birther" movement was based on sheer speculation about the circumstances of Obama's birth.

I happened to be on a long drive on Monday, and I managed to catch what seemed to be an endless stream of hours of Hannity repeating exactly the same thing over and over again -- shame on Harry Reid for making these scurrilous allegations -- how would he feel if we started making stuff up about him beating his wife?

But Hannity never ever (as far as I heard, although admittedly I tuned him out from time to time, metaphorically and literally) addressed the question of whether or not ordinary taxpayers and voters are entitled to have a look at a few more years of Romney's tax returns before putting him in charge of the country and at least potentially the country's tax policy.

I've always assumed that my tax returns would be available to certain prospective employers (they are certainly available to prospective lenders), and if I were to run for President I'd assume the public would want to see them.  If I were running for President, I would also assume that some day, historians (my future biographers) will have access to them.  So if Romney has been as circumspect as I have been, he shouldn't have anything to fear, and in fact he might as well just get the process over with now.  There's no "principled" reason why he shouldn't disclose them -- or if there is, I haven't heard one.

So that leaves only the glaring possibility that Romney doesn't think that his tax returns will go over very well with the public.  His proud stance that he didn't pay "a penny more" than he owed raises the question of just how he can be sure that's the case -- how much money did he pay how many accountants and tax lawyers to ensure that he didn't pay the government "a penny more" than he owed?

If nothing else, the publication of these tax returns would help the public work through some of the issues that many of us have with the tax code -- why should clever tax lawyers and accountants be able to earn obscene livings by simply helping to ensure that certain insanely rich taxpayers don't pay "a penny more" tax than a literal reading of the tax code (loopholes and all) says they "owe"?  Why does our economy reward that kind of obviously anti-social behavior?  And is there anything we can do about it?

The Romney tax return issue is also interesting for the fact that it's an essentially non-partisan issue --whether or not a candidate should disclose certain information about himself -- and yet the opinion divides almost perfectly along partisan lines (with the exception of a few conservative commenters who think he SHOULD release the returns, but probably don't realize how damaging they could be).  It's just like the issue of the birth certificate, or Obama's college transcripts.  As a voter, I'd like to see all of it; but for some reason, recent tax returns of an admitted tax avoider seem very relevant in this economy, and in a political climate where tax policy is a central issue.

It would be irresponsible for me to somehow "believe" that I knew that he paid zero taxes during that year (but of course, if GE can do it, why can't Mitt Romney?), but until I see the returns, I will assume that there is plenty in there to be outraged about.

I read recently that the one tax policy that Romney has been clear about is that he would repeal the estate tax.  While Obama's performance has been less than stellar on that issue, that's reason enough not to let Romney get anywhere close to the White House.

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