Verboten subject

Mitt Romney’s secrecy about tax returns speaks volumes

As of press time, we’re still waiting to see Mitt Romney’s tax returns. And by that, I mean more than one partial release of one single year’s return.

Frankly, I don’t care about the numbers on the returns. I know already that both he and his VP pick Paul Ryan have earned—from work, from investments and, in Romney’s case, from inherited wealth—far more money than I’ll ever earn, and they’re paying a far lower tax rate than I’ll ever be able to nab.

OK, I get it: They’re rich, I’m not. Big whoop.

This is not about the numbers on the returns. It’s not even about the tax rate paid. But those tax returns are still very important. How we handle our tax burden is a measure of how we view government, how honest we are and what sort of obligation we feel we have to our fellow citizens.

Talking about money in this country is far, far more verboten than talking about sex, and talking about taxes is even worse. Earlier this summer, Romney made a joke to the effect that those who fail to use every means available to avoid paying additional taxes aren’t qualified to be president, as if being willing to give a little extra is somehow an intellectual or moral failing.

That tells us something about his attitude toward being a taxpayer, as does his reluctance to release his tax returns. Now, in the interest of transparency, we need to see how his behavior as a taxpayer squares up with what he’s told us.

We could just trust him. But, as a famous politician—who did release his tax returns, by the way—once said, “Trust, but verify.”

Here’s the bottom line: All presidential candidates—indeed, all political candidates—will be in a position to have a profound effect on how the tax burden is assigned and who benefits from the tax code. The tax policies introduced will directly impact our lives with every paycheck.

Those tax returns tell us where the candidate’s money comes from and how the candidate deals with his tax burden. Releasing the returns goes a long, long way toward keeping government transparent. Without knowing how much candidates make, where it comes from, and how they handle their tax obligations, we can’t possibly know what agenda is motivating their policy proposals.

Perhaps the Romney tax plan—which we think would reduce his tax burden while increasing mine—isn’t being proposed just because it would save Romney, Ryan and their major supporters a lot of money. But without accurate information about Romney’s tax obligation—and how he deals with it through deductions, tax shelters and other accounting procedures—we’ll never know for certain.

Shouldn’t we know not just the candidates’ attitude, but the candidates’ behavior where taxes are concerned?

Here’s something I can absolutely guarantee, though: If the Romney ticket is allowed to avoid answering questions about their tax returns, we’ll never again get a look at a candidate’s tax returns. Not ever.

And that would be a real loss for transparency in government.