Wow. Seriously, Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan? Seriously??

Am I misunderstanding (certainly a possibility), or do the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan write an entire article based on a really obviously ridiculous conflation of two separate concepts: what tax law is, and what tax law should be?

The article, titled “Mitt Romney was right (on taxes),” chastises the public for hypocrisy in believing, on the one hand, by wide poll margins, that people should do whatever they can to legally reduce their taxes as much as possible, yet on the other hand disapproving of politicians (especially wealthy ones) doing exactly that. These writers use two examples: the respective cases of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, the latter who just released his newly-filed tax returns for last year showing that he and his wife paid federal income taxes at a rate of 18.4%.

About Romney, they write:

The two-time presidential candidate, whose considerable wealth made the release of his tax returns a focal point of the 2012 campaign, insisted that he paid what was required but no more.

“I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more,” Romney said at a debate in January 2012 just prior to releasing his 2010 and 2011 returns. “I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”

Eighty-five percent of the American public should have agreed with Romney. But, of course, they didn’t. Romney was cast as trying to game the system for the benefit of he and his wealthy friends. In a February 2012 Washington Post-ABC News poll, two in three Americans said Romney did not pay his fair share of taxes (the public was split over the question in the fall). And a majority of voters in the 2012 exit poll said that Romney’s policies would generally favor the rich and he lost that portion of the vote overwhelmingly.

About Obama, they say, “The Drudge Report, a popular conservative-leaning aggregation site, quickly went with a banner expressing incredulity at the 18 percent rate. Conservatives on twitter were similarly disgruntled.”  As if it’s the general public rather than the far-right starve-the-beast crowd that’s shocked.  And as if it’s even clear that the Drudge Report writer’s incredulity is about Obama’s paying only the legally required amount rather than the lowness of the legally required amount.  The headline, which is not attached to a story, best as I can tell, but instead simply links to the Wall Street Journal news report about Obama’s tax return, reads, “Obama only pays tax rate of 18%?”

Well, yes.  That’s what Obama is actively trying to change: the lowness of the federal income taxes paid by the wealthy.

That much is obvious.  Obama campaigned on a promise to raise federal tax revenues obtained from the wealthy.  Romney campaigned on a promise to lower the tax revenues obtained from the wealthy, who are, y’know, jobs creators who took risks.  Risks!  Including, for many of them, such as Mitt and Ann Romney themselves and, especially, their sons, being born into a wealthy family.  Warren Buffett is not a politician, but it’s a safe bet that he paid no more income taxes than he owed under current tax law, even though he has been in the vanguard of high-profile people who openly plead with politicians to raise tax rates for the wealthy and also remove the outrageous loopholes available to them.

It’s also a safe bet–even safer than, say, betting on Berkshire Hathaway stock–that Warren Buffett has never had a retirement-savings account in a Cayman Islands bank that has between $20 million and $120 million (or the deflationary equivalent) in it, achieved almost certainly by stated initial gross devaluation of equities placed into the account.  And that he did not avail himself of the IRS’s 2009 tax amnesty program for people who were shielding income from the IRS in Swiss banks because he did shield income from the IRS in Swiss banks.  Romney likely did both, which probably is why he refused to release to the public tax documents that would dispel those inferences.  The only other reasonably possible motive for his failure to release those documents is that they would have highlighted the outrageousness of legal tax loopholes that Romney did not want to draw attention to–also a possibility, although, I suspect, not the actual, or at least not the predominant, one), but in any event not one that supports these journalists’ characterization of the public’s poll responses as hypocritical.

What’s really remarkable, in my opinion, is that at least one of these two Washington Post political writers, one of them very high-profile–and as a regular reader of their blog, The Fix, I suspect it is Cillizza, the high-profile one, rather than Sullivan–thinks that a poll question using the phrase “pay their fair share of taxes” references not preferred tax policy but instead actual, current tax policy. The poll question almost certainly was intended to reach, and was understood by the poll respondents to be asking, about the voter’s preferred tax law, not about how the voter thinks people should act, by choice, under current, existing tax law.  With the caveat, of course, that most people don’t think wealthy people such as the Romneys should violate tax law, as many, many people who followed the specifics of the Romney-tax-returns controversy last year did conclude.

There is, in other words, nothing even slightly hypocritical in believing that people are morally entitled to avail themselves of legal tax breaks but that tax law should be amended to remove some of those tax breaks, to raise tax rates on the wealthy, to tax investment income at the same or near-same rate as investment income, and to tax large estates.  Or to do at least some of these things.

The belief that the law in its current form does not exact payment of a fair share of tax revenues from the wealthy, and the belief that it’s fine for people to employ current tax law to lower their own taxes, irrespective of their views on what tax policy should be, are not contradictory. Unless, like one or both of these journalists, you think the phrase “fair share of taxes” means two distinct and contrary things at once.  But most people, I’m pretty sure, understand quite well what that phrase addresses.  And it’s only one of those two things, not both.

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