What Mitt Romney’s returns tell us about the tax system

SOME WEEKS ago, having already absorbed a good many of Mitt Romney’s debate performances, New York Times columnist David Brooks noted the tinniness of the former Massachusetts governor every time the subject of money arose. Why can’t politicians talk plainly about money, and why does the subject of income tax yield so much verbal gymnastic?

The claim has been made that, if elected, Mitt Romney would be by far the richest President of American history. I have no idea how one would arrive at a certain conclusion, but in doing so enormous impediments would require a leap. Thomas Jefferson’s wealth, denominated in the foreign currencies of both another age and economy, included slaves. Indeed, in the early years of the Republic, wealth of a scale well beyond Romney’s could be observed among America’s political leadership. The founders were men of learning and culture, many of them drawn from a privilege- and plantation-based colonial aristocracy. Pre-industrial and pre-finance-capitalist, the economic world of Washington  was reckoned not in dollars but in acres. The first President was land rich and cash poor, a fact which introduces the real-world complexities of social class — the role of property and position in the business of perception. A good deal of one’s socio-economic class subsists in prestige, a matter quite independent of dollars.

Winding back the tape in this matter, we discern both how mightily the political elite has surged and how far it has fallen. Paul Fussell has written that the American Revolution was a triumph of intellectualism and civilization which it took America a century to correct. The current primary debate will serve as well as anything to reinforce the point that elitism is less the Republican problem than is stubborn ignorance. The Republican party is the party of lower taxes for dividend-drawers, the party of hedge funds and Cayman corporations and comforts for the comfortable. There is an argument that Mitt Romney could make to justify all of this: Bain Capital’s investments did after all rescue a number of struggling companies, among them Staples, The Sports Authority, and Burger King. Instead, and like all Republicans today, he has mostly relied on the boorish cliché of bitter and envious critics. Romney is but the symptom of a disease, the disease itself being the abstract and inscrutable weirdness of the modern-day financial-capitalist economy. Perhaps then the politicians avoid the subject because they happen not to understand it and further have no expectation that others will either.

When Romney at last disclosed his 2010 tax return, it was discovered to contain two hundred and three pages, roughly the size of a novel. Expensively drafted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, this book-length work features a chapter set in Bermuda. Somewhere the story arrives at the Cayman Islands. The narrative also mentions a Swiss bank account, but doubtless by mere coincidence this is closed when the hero of the story decides to run for President. Along the way there is a lot of very complex and tiresome math, certain to keep this work far from the New York Times best seller list of 2012. Like their biographies and political memoirs, the tax returns of presidential hopefuls are all ghost written, and for the simple reason that the tax code is far too complex for the human brain not entirely dedicated full time to its arcane language. In 2012, one might well revise the American dream as the assurance that anyone can grow up to hire a good tax accountant. In any case, the plain choice of our age is either to do that or be ground by the IRS into the dust.

None of this constitutes the material of expedient speaking points. Romney knows, but can’t quite say, that there’s nothing wrong with what he’s done. Instead, he notes the legality of it all, which is true but not quite the same thing. He plays by the rules of a rotten game, but then so do all the politicians. The rules dictate that a Wall Street casino-billionaire will pay a lower percentage of his income in income tax than a modestly remunerated grade-school teacher. The former, even if he does great damage, will be rewarded; the latter, even if she does great good, will not. Probably the only material difference between the two, other than the obvious difference in scale of their wealth, is that one will be on familiar terms with the staff of a top-notch tax firm and one will not. Again, you may argue the point of fairness — that is, in the “playing of the game” sense of that word. But to come out and say this, roughly as I have put it here, is to indulge an apparent cynicism no politician feels he can risk. And so we are instead taken by the hand, to be led along bullshit’s moral high ground to the prospect from which we apprehend the rich job creators and the big bad government who would toss everyone into the chasm of socialism.

In his brief rehearsal at the role of Teddy Roosevelt, President Obama reminded us of an earlier era’s airing of the foundational American topics: fairness, opportunity, freedom, personal responsibility. Roosevelt came to see the United States as occupying a critical point in its history, a point at which certain principles and tenets widely taken for granted were anything but. The principles of opportunity and fairness seemed at odds with the Gilded Age’s monopolies and robber barons, an arrangement which brought forth a few massive winners and a legion of losers — immortalized respectively in Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” and Upton Sinclair’s Chicago stockyards jungle. Both of the books to which this former sentence alludes constituted in their day a manner of literary outing, the consequent scandals leading to practical changes in the way America conducted its business. But as one may easily observe today, everything is calculated for precisely the opposite effect, to keep the conduct of business well within its established channels.

It is difficult to resist the evidence in plain view that few leaders understand economics or the nature of the economy today, and that in lieu of such understanding there is ideology and sloganeering and deference to experts (among whom Moses figures prominently) who in many cases are probably only guessing themselves. An impossibly complex tax system has as its complements an impossibly complex economy and a path to wealth which is unachievable and even mysterious for most Americans. The modes of opportunity represented by Mitt Romney are, from a mid-Western small town perspective, otherworldly. No ordinary person may be reasonably expected to understand what an entity like Bain Capital does, and much the same may be said of financial capitalism as a whole. It is one thing not to want to talk about the elephant in the room, and quite another to be lost in the fog of incomprehension, grappling with — here I am citing the Mighty Boosh character, Bob Fossil — “the grey leg-face man.”

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