Why Mitt Romney's tax returns don't matter

Posted: July 24, 2012

IF YOU'RE like me, you're on pins and needles waiting for Mitt Romney to release his tax returns so we can see (a) just how rich he really is and (b) what he's hiding from the American people.

Actually, I'm kidding.

I don't give a rat's rump about Mitt's returns, other than to satisfy some voyeuristic curiosity.

I mean, what? Rich people use tax laws to stay rich? That's news?

The whole thing's a dopey distraction intended to keep folks focused on Mitt's money so that they don't focus on the lack of their own.

Searchlight attention on a rich man's wealth means no spotlight on declines of middle-class income and assets.

The Obama camp knows what plays.

Mayor Nutter just joined the act, signing a letter to Mitt from a bunch of mayors questioning Mitt's "fair share" and use of "shifty accounting."

You know the buzzwords.

And, yes, some Republicans also call for Mitt to divulge more, but that's to make the issue go away.

And although hidden returns are fun fodder for TV talkers and Beltway blowhards, remember: They all live in a bubble of economic comfort. Ask an average voter what he or she's concerned about and Mitt's moola won't make a top-10 list.

But let's play it out.

All assume Mitt's hiding something by releasing only two years, 2010 and estimates for 2011.

I don't recall, however, assuming that 2008 GOP nominee John McCain was hiding something when he released only two years ('06 and '07) when he was running. And, yeah, McCain didn't have offshore accounts or near the reported (and unreported) wealth of Romney.

But McCain says that while vetting Romney as a potential running mate in '08, more than 20 years of Mitt's returns showed "nothing" to disqualify Romney as a candidate.

So that gets us to '08 and '09, which haven't been seen in terms of political liability.

A recent Business Week piece suggests that Mitt's reluctance to reveal returns is tied to the market collapse in '08 in which the ultrarich, such as Romney, suffered huge losses, losses averaging 25 percent of net worth.

The piece says it's possible that such a large capital loss for Mitt, along with offshore shelters, might mean that he paid no federal taxes in 2009.

It's a theory viewed as problematic, as in, "All that money and he paid no taxes?"

But, if true, is that reason enough to hide returns?

Mitt didn't write the tax laws. Congress, under control of Democrats and Republicans, is responsible for whatever "shifty accounting" the laws allow.

Those inclined to vote for Mitt likely wouldn't be dissuaded by his use of the laws. Those outraged by legal compliance resulting in little or maybe no tax liability wouldn't be Mitt voters anyway.

There are, of course, other views.

Temple Law tax prof Jan Ting, for example, sees "terrible political problems" if Mitt's overseas investments maximized his own income at a time when the U.S. needed capital — sort of a me-first, country-who-cares scenario.

And Ting suggests that Mitt might have transferred assets to family trusts, in which case his own returns would not reflect his true worth — a game of hide-a-fortune.

But maybe there's a wilder game afoot.

What if this is a trap?

Mitt's been running for president for a decade. Would he allow his finances or taxes to cause or enhance image problems?

Suppose there's nothing there. Suppose Romney takes heat all summer for not releasing returns, then puts everything out and everything amounts to zip, or just that he has lots of money.

Obama camp looks a little silly. Romney says his opponent is all about distracting voters from real issues. And then he can call for release of Obama's "real" birth certificate.

For recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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