The ongoing war between Harry Reid and Mitt Romney is certainly interesting, as battles between congenitally unlikeable politicians go, but to me it misses the point. The Democrats want everyone in the world to know that Mitt Romney won’t release a decades’ worth of tax returns, and they apparently want voters to suspect that he didn’t pay any tax during that time. They're using Harry Reid to spread that message, which makes enough sense politicially, I guess.
But what they should be doing instead is hammering Romney on the missing returns, yes, but focusing even more on the returns he did release. We’ve known for seven months now, for instance, that Romney paid $3 million in federal taxes in 2010 on $21.7 million in taxable revenue, an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent. Which, as most people know, is less than half the rate most people pay on their income tax.
When Romney released these numbers, he said they were "entirely legal and fair," and added, "I’m proud of the fact that I pay a lot of taxes."
The Romney tax returns are a prime example of our increasingly two-tiered bureaucratic system, in which there is one set of rules for poor and middle-class people, and another set of rules for people like Mitt Romney.
The most common method of giving preferential treatment to the rich is through semantics. The old classic was that you called a rich kid blowing coke in his dorm room one thing, and you called a black street kid smoking crack something else, and the two got different penalties for the same crime – cocaine use.
Or, and this one is still true in some states, the rich white kid who uses a fake ID to get into a club gets hit with a misdemeanor and a fine, while an immigrant who uses a fake ID to get a job at a chicken plant gets dragged in for a felony and can get up to 15 years in jail. Both offenses are simple forgery, but one is also called felony fraud and you get real prison time for it.
In Mitt’s case, the money you and I make to support ourselves is called income and is taxed up to 35 percent, but the money Mitt makes raiding companies with borrowed money and extracting draconian management fees from captive companies that have no choice but to pay them is called "Carried Interest," and taxed at a top rate of 15%.
The ostensible excuse for this outrageous difference is based upon a built-in cultural value judgment, which says that the work Mitt Romney does raiding companies with borrowed money is more valuable than the work ordinary people do laying asphalt or teaching autistic children. Here's what one private equity spokesperson said by way of explanation for this difference:
Steve Judge, the president of the Private Equity Growth Capital Council, a trade group for private equity funds, said carried interest is a way to reward risk takers in a way that tax havens do not. "They don’t have the purpose of incentivizing risk taking," Judge said. "That makes it inappropriate to blend carried interest with them."
So the carried interest tax break is a way to "incentivize" the kind of work Mitt Romney does. One wonders then if the relatively higher tax rates paid by teachers and librarians and cops is ... what? A disincentive? Anyway, it's this skewed set of obligations that Mitt Romney thinks is "fair."
The Obama administration, if it wanted to, could make a lot of hay over this. It could say, “Mitt Romney doesn’t want to release his tax returns for years and years during the last decade. But the years for which he did release returns, he paid a rate that’s less than half of what most ordinary American professionals make – and he thinks that’s 'fair.'"
Now, Obama has gone after Mitt’s tax returns – a little. He’s released a few ads here and there, including one called "Makes You Wonder" that called Mitt’s use of carried interest in his tax return a "trick," a semantic move for which Obama was criticized, since it was actually nothing of the sort. Mitt Romney’s ability to pay a top rate of 15% for his work was no trick at all but a fully-legal expression of the values of our current political system, a system, again, that Mitt Romney is “proud of” and thinks is “fair.”
The reason the Obama administration hasn’t gone after this aggressively is probably the same reason it hasn’t fought harder to repeal that carried interest tax break (which Obama incidentally promised to do four years ago), and the same reason that everyone from Corey Booker to Bill Clinton has urged Obama to lay off the theme of private equity thuggery in his campaign against Romney. Big-time politicians are still afraid to explain to the American people how exactly it is that many Wall Street firms make their money, because they’re afraid to lose access to the crumbs those firms sometimes toss their way.
In the case of Romney, what we’ve mostly heard is that he’s a turnover specialist who sometimes creates jobs and sometimes eliminates them – a kind of ideologically-neutral efficiency consultant who takes a cut when poorly-run companies cut out the fat. The Obama ads about Bain have been emotionally effective, but they’re still frustratingly vague about the actual mechanics of these takeovers. We learn from these ads that a bunch of rich guys took over plants and fired workers, but what we don’t learn is how companies like Bain raise the money for those takeovers, why the plants subsequently become cash-poor, how this industry works generally, and not just at Bain.
In fact the takeover method espoused by Bain and many other private equity firms is a lot closer to the Tony Soprano-takes-over-Davey-Scatino’s-sporting-goods-store "Bust Out" model (and we’ll be getting into this more in the magazine in upcoming weeks) than it is to anything like legitimate consulting.
Barack Obama is one of the few politicians with the communication skills to explain this to middle America, but he’s refusing to go there, probably because he’s still hoping for a post-election rapprochement with Wall Street. He wants to go after Bain Capital, but not private equity in general; he wants to go after Mitt Romney’s missing tax returns, but not the tax returns of all people like Mitt Romney.
That makes him look weak and indecisive, and it makes his message confusing.
In the meantime, there are going to be a lot of these battles-by-proxy, in which surrogates like Harry Reid try to egg Romney into releasing his tax returns. There’s no doubt the returns are embarrassing – otherwise Romney would have released them by now. And there’s no doubt that Romney should take heat for not releasing those returns. But there’s enough information already for Barack Obama to tell a powerful story about wealth and privilege to most ordinary Americans. He just doesn’t want to tell it.