A Philosopher's Blog

Taxing Mitt

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 20, 2012
speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Mitt Romney has released his recent tax returns, he has taken considerable heat for not releasing more of them. While it is no surprise that the Democrats have been pushing Romney on this, some conservatives have also urged Romney to release these returns.

Romney’s view seems to be that he has done what is required and his wife said that  they have “given all you people need to know.” This does raise a legitimate question about what voters have the right to know about candidates. While presidential contenders have historically released tax returns covering many years, Romney is not violating any laws by refusing to release the tax returns in question. Assuming that the law defines what voters have the right to know, then the voters have no right to know the content of these returns. Of course, what people have a right to know (as defined by the law) and what people need to know can be two distinct things. After all, in order to properly assess the candidates, voters might claim to need information that the candidates are not legally obligated to share. For example, some people wanted to know a great deal about Obama and desired to see his college transcripts. In the case of Romney, some voters seem to think they need to know about these tax returns. However, the mere fact that voters want to know or think they need to know something does not entail that they actually have a legitimate need to know it. That is, that they have a right to know. While politicians can legitimately be expected to provide more information to the public than a typical citizen, they do not surrender their privacy completely. As such, there is still a legitimate question of whether the public has a legitimate need to know about these tax returns.

Given that other presidential candidates have released extensive tax records, it does seem well established that there is  legitimate expectation on the part of voters that they will have access to such information. Of course, it could be countered that this is a mere tradition and has no moral weight. That is, the fact that other candidates (including Romney’s father) released their returns does not entail that the voters have a right to see Romney’s tax returns-even if they would be relevant in making their voting decision.

Naturally, it could be argued that Romney has tacitly made the tax returns a matter of legitimate public concern. After all, much of his case for why he should be president is based on his success in business. If the voters are to properly assess Romney’s business competence, the voters need access to these financial records. As such, it could be argued that Romney has given voters a legitimate need to know about these returns. As such, the voters do not have all they need to know and the returns should be released.

Romney has also argued that he does not want to release them because the Democrats would go through them looking for material with which to attack Romney. As the Democrats see it, this means that the tax returns must contain things that would give them plenty of ammunition against Romney. As Romney sees it, the Democrats will twist and misuse the returns to make him look bad. As such, he seems to think he is better off taking the criticism for not releasing the returns than sustaining the damage that would result from releasing them.

On the one hand, it could be contended that Romney has a legitimate point. If there is nothing bad in his tax returns, but the Democrats will be able to somehow manufacture ammunition from this nothing, then releasing them would unjustly damage him. On the other hand, it can be contended that this reply is rather dubious. After all, if there is nothing bad in the tax returns, then the Democrats would simply be making things up if they said bad things about the returns-something they could do with or without the actual returns. To be fair to Romney, pundits and spinners are often able to twist innocuous things to make them look terrible. For example, pundits on the right have managed to do this sort of thing to Obama even when he released what was demanded, such as his birth certificate. However, there is the rather important question of whether or not there is anything bad in the returns and it does seem that voters have a right to know about this.

Some of Romney’s fellow Republicans are urging him to release the tax returns, mainly because of the damage that his making an issue of this is doing to his campaign.  Given that Obama has released several years of tax returns, it does make Romney look bad, especially since a beloved narrative on the right has been that Obama is a keeper of secrets. While people are generally not consistent in politics, Romney’s secrecy in this matter is not playing well even among those who are not fans of Obama. After all, it is natural to infer that if someone is keeping something secret, what is being concealed must be worse for the person than the damage done by people knowing they are keeping secrets. By keeping the returns secret, Romney invites speculation and causes people to wonder what terrible secrets he is hiding. This is, obviously enough, not a good strategy. Unless, of course, what is being concealed really is so bad that keeping it secret is preferable.

It is unlikely that the tax returns contain anything incredibly dire, such as evidence of criminal activity. While this is mere speculation, I suspect that the returns show that Romney made vast amounts of money and made use of every loophole and trick to pay as little taxes as possible. Since most people try to do the same (that is, pay as little as possible) and everyone knows Romney is rich, there must be something that the returns will show that would be damaging in some way. Speculating once again, I think that the problem might be that Romney’s tax returns would provide the Democrats with vivid ammunition against the Republican narrative that the job creators are over-taxed. After all, if Romney’s people were able to work the existing laws to keep Romney’s taxes rather low, this would enable the Democrats to point directly to Romney as evidence that the rich are underpaying rather than overpaying.

There might be other things on the tax returns, such as Swiss bank accounts, that would also provide the Democrats with considerable political ammunition to use to counter the Republican narratives about taxes, job creators and wealth. Of course, most of this would merely confirm what people already know: Romney is very rich and no doubt does all the sorts of things that rich people do that less affluent people cannot. However, the tax returns might provide such clear evidence of class disparity in America that they would actually hurt Romney’s chances. Or perhaps not. After all, people already know that Romney is exceptionally rich and upper class and he seems to be doing well despite (or perhaps because) of this.

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17 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on July 20, 2012 at 8:00 am

    “However, the tax returns might provide such clear evidence of class disparity in America that they would actually hurt Romney’s chances.”

    Truman is about the only “blue collar” president I can think of.

    “Unless, of course, what is being concealed really is so bad that keeping it secret is preferable.”

    I remember you argued that Obama was keeping his birth certificate secret because showing it would empower the accusers. I found this to be absurd.

    Mitt Romney’s tax returns will not keep him from winning in 2012. Obama’s gonna have to hit the post-presidential speech circuit to make some cash. I’m buying stocks in the teleprompter market.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 24, 2012 at 11:57 am

      Do you mean this:
      “Third, by taking on the birthers, the governor is actually giving them a certain appearance of credibility. After all, this makes them seem like a movement that is worth engaging and this probably serves to bolster the members and make some other folk feel that there just might be something to this movement. It would seem wiser to simply leave the movement alone and wait for it to quietly diminish over time. In some cases, one must confront crackpot movements in order to defeat them. In other cases, it is best to not feed them and to not keep getting them mentioned in the media. I think that the birther movement is, at this point, best ignored rather than engaged.”

      If so, there seems to be a difference between “feeding” conspiracy theorists and pushing for the release of tax returns. After all, we know Romney filed tax returns. What is in question is what is in those returns.

  2. magus71 said, on July 20, 2012 at 9:13 am

    This cat is intently watching CNN for the latest on Romney’s tax returns:

    • T. J. Babson said, on July 20, 2012 at 9:37 am

      I fully expected the cat to open a beer…

  3. T. J. Babson said, on July 20, 2012 at 9:35 am

    “Romney’s view seems to be that he has done what is required and his wife said that they have “given all you people need to know.” ”

    This is not what she said according to ABC: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/07/did-ann-romney-say-you-people-the-road-argument-at-a-truck-shop-boehner-on-bachmann-rubios-anti-pledge-drive/

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 24, 2012 at 11:58 am

      It sounded like she said that, but audio can be tricky. However, my main points do not hinge on this point. That is, what she said makes no difference to them one way or another.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on July 20, 2012 at 9:38 am

    The Kerry family is worth about twice what Romney is worth, and they also released 2 years worth of tax returns.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on July 20, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Actually, I think this is a brilliant move on Mitt’s part for several reasons.

    1) He is getting attacked by the liberal press and is standing firm. This makes him look strong and is guaranteed to fire up the base.

    2) He is talking about real issues facing the country while Obama is talking about old tax returns.

    3) It makes people remember all the things that Obama has refused to release, such as transcripts from any of his schools, medical records, Fast and Furious documents, FOIA requests, etc.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on July 20, 2012 at 10:09 am

    I think Obama made a huge mistake by first calling Romney a “felon,” and then when Romney asked for an apology they said to “stop whining” and “put on your big boy pants.”

    Romney has now stopped calling Obama a “nice guy” and realizes that Obama doesn’t play by any recognized set of rules. The gloves will come off.

  7. T. J. Babson said, on July 20, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Ann Romney did not say “you people” but Obama did:

    “It shouldn’t be a Democrat/Republican issue,” Obama said. “America is not just about you people doing well. America is about everybody doing well.”


  8. T. J. Babson said, on July 20, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Creator or parasite? Howard Roark:

    • magus71 said, on July 20, 2012 at 1:14 pm

      Good video. Not sure if you have a decent library next to you, but if you do, look for a book named “I can’t believe I’m sitting next to a Republican”, written by Harry Stein, an ex-liberal journalist who came in from the cold in 2000. In the book, he gives several hilarious anecdotes about conversations with liberal friends in New York. Of particular interest is the chapter about how landlords get treated in New York. They are viewed as feudal lords trying to squeeze every ounce of blood out of tenants. In reality, many tenants have learned every weakness of society’s useful idiots and their institutions and milk the system for all it’s worth. It all makes me think that Nietzsche and Rand were on to something.

  9. magus71 said, on September 24, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    “I suspect that the returns show that Romney made vast amounts of money and made use of every loophole and trick to pay as little taxes as possible.”

    4 million dollars to charity in 2011? That’s quite a trick on Romney’s part, Mike. He must have learned that from the Russian Mafia.


    • biomass2 said, on September 24, 2012 at 5:25 pm

      I’m always flabbergasted by how giving $4 million to charity deeply impresses so many people. In Romney’s case he makes $14 million, gives $4 million to charity—which might be a one-off deal for the public’s eye—and pays nearly $2 million in taxes. That’s a bit less than 30? After taxes and charitable giving he’s left poverty stricken with $8 million simoleons. . .

      If a guy who makes $20k/y, which would be a bit more than the minimum wage in most states for a 52 wk, 40 hour/week job, and would give 30% to charity, he would have $14k remaining—slightly above the official poverty level*. Whatever, the poor hump may be a likely candidate for the Mitt’s 47%.

      *Perhaps someone could tell me whether he’d be eligible for food stamps at that level.

      • biomass2 said, on September 24, 2012 at 5:27 pm

        line 3/ less than 30%…….

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 24, 2012 at 7:13 pm

      Giving $4 million to charity is consistent with using all loopholes and tricks to pay as little taxes as possible. Also, as I recall, such deductions are tax deductible. But, if he is giving to charities that help people due to a virtue of generosity or compassion, then kudos to him for his goodness.

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