Obama’s State of the Union vs Romney’s Tax Returns

by Linda Beale

Obama’s State of the Union vs Romney’s Tax Returns

Obama took the high ground in his state of the union address, where he pointedly noted the importance of applying fair tax rules to ensure that millionaires pay taxes at rates more similar to those paid by secretaries and firefighters. He wants a 30% rate on those with incomes of a million or more.

We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” Obama said in his address to a joint session of Congress. “Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” STeven Sloan, Obama Says High-Earners Should Pay at least 30% of Income as Tax, Bloomberg.com, Jan 24, 2011.

That would mean that Romney wouldn’t enjoy the exceptionally low rate of tax he had in 2010 after Congress enacted Obama’s suggested reforms. Romney released his tax returns on Tuesday. See this handy link on the New York Times at which the 2010 and 2011 returns and accompanying documents are available, including links showing where Romney earned his $528,871 in speaking fees, etc.. Romney paid only 13.9% on $21.6 million of income, benefitting enormously from the low preferential capital gains rate of 15% that he paid on his returns from his investment of capital. Romney benefitted, too, from investments in the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven. And he is still earning “carried interest” from Bain Capital to the tune of multiple millions a year–that’s a share of the profits of a partnership he managed, treated as though it were a return on an investment of capital though it is paid for services. Romney is most definitely one of the 1%–actually in an even more rarefied class cluster of the top 0.006% of multimillionaires with lots of very low taxed income. See Kevin McCoy, Romney tax returns show he’s no average multipmillionaire, USA Today (Jan. 24, 2011) (noting that only 8274 returns out of 140 million filed had income of $10 million or more in 2009); Lori Montgomery et al, Mitt Romney’s Tax Returns shed some light on his investment wealth, Washington Post (Jan. 24, 2012); Nicholas Confessore, Romney’s Tax Returns Show $21.6 Million Income in ’10, New York Times (Jan. 24, 2012).

As the Times story puts it:

What Mr. Romney’s returns illustrated, instead, was the array of perfectly ordinary ways in which the United States tax code confers advantages on the rich, allowing Mr. Romney to amass wealth under rules very different from those faced by most Americans who take home a paycheck.

Obama’s proposals sound reasonable. But I’d extend the basic concepts to the corporate tax. Every corporation that is making book profits of more than some amount ($5 million? $10 million) ought to be held to a similar minimum tax rate on those book profits.

Funny, that is what the original Alternative Minimum Tax (for individuals, and one for corporations) was supposed to achieve–to ensure that everybody paid at least a reasonable rate on their income, even if they could cumulate lots of preferences like mortgage interest deductions, state income taxes, property taxes, and similar deductions. Over time, the AMT has eroded–too many exceptions made, too many taxpayer friendly amendments, and then the Bush tax cut bills that lowered rates so that the AMT rates aren’t really working well as a “broader base but lower rate” tax that ensures that even high-flying income recipients pay a more reasonable tax rate on their income.