Sweet and legal

    OK, now it’s official: Mitt Romney personifies economic unfairness.According to the tax returns he reluctantly coughed up this morning, he has lately been taxed at a rate far lower than the average working stiff. And he enjoys this sweet legal deal precisely because he’s not working at all. He made $42 million during the last two years without lifting a finger, and the feds took only 15 percent of it. That’s one of the perks of investment income, as opposed to wage income. Compliments of the U.S. tax code.No wonder he didn’t want to release anything. He originally insisted, a few months ago, that he had “no intention” to open his books. He hadn’t released any returns when he ran for the Senate in ’94, when he ran for governor in ’02, or when he ran for president in ’08. But as the pressure mounted this winter (major candidates have released their returns since the ’70s, and his own dad did it in 1967), he began to cave. On Jan. 16, he said he might do it in April, although “time will tell.” On Jan. 19, he said “maybe.” But two days ago, on Fox News, he acknowledged that his stonewalling had hurt him politically in South Carolina; in his words, “We made a mistake for holding off as long as we did.”Romney has now decided that transparency will hurt him less. At last night’s Republican debate, he sought to pre-spin the release of his ’10 and ’11 documents by stressing that he pays “all the taxes that are legally required.” In an interview earlier in the day, he said: “We follow the law.”True enough. But if you or I had Romney’s form of wealth, we’d be happy to “follow the law” and pay only what is “legally required.” Because the law itself is heavily tilted in favor of multimillionaires who live off investments. They get a much better deal from the law than the average Joe who draws a paycheck. (It gets worse. According to the IRS’ calculations of median adjusted gross income, the average working Joe made $33,048 in 2008. Romney makes that in less than a day, and gets taxed at a far lower rate.)Referring to his tax rate last night, Romney said, “Is it entirely legal and fair? Absolutely.” Oh please. The rate is “legal” because lobbyists for the private equity, hedge fund, and venture capitalist industries have the clout on Capitol Hill to keep it legal. And the fairness issue will be debated fiercely in the 2012 campaign, particularly when we move to general election mode. According to a nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll, released last month, 57 percent of swing-voting independents said their biggest tax concern is that wealthy people aren’t paying their fair share.Billionaire Warren Buffett concurs. (He’s the guy who famously said he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.) On the eve of Romney’s tax return release, Buffett told Bloomberg Television that Romney has been lavishly rewarded for adhering to tax laws that are unfairly skewed to his advantage. The money quote, as it were: “(Romney) makes his money the same way I make my money. He makes money by moving around big bucks, not by straining his back or going to work and cleaning toilets or whatever it may be. He makes it by shoving around money.”Romney claims that he’s being persecuted for “being successful,” but he misses the point. The issue is how the tax laws treat his particular brand of success. And that dovetails with the broader campaign issues of economic unfairness and income inequality. Expect to hear President Obama touch on those concerns during tonight’s State of the Union address. It’s officially a policy speech, but Obama’s decision to invite Buffett’s secretary, and to have her sit with the First Lady…well, suffice it to say there’s a thin line between policy and politics. ——-Speaking of last night’s Republican debate, it was a torpid slog – at one point, National Review editor Rich Lowry tweeted, “Why would anyone not professionally obligated still be watching this debate?” – but I did love the episode that stood out as the quintessential Florida pander.It occurred when moderator Brian Williams asked the candidates how they would recalibrate U.S. foreign policy to deal with Cuba, down the road, after the death of Fidel Castro.Romney, sensing an opportunity to grovel at the feet of Castro-hating Cuban-Americans (a sizable bloc in a Florida Republican primary), replied: “First of all, you thank heaven that Fidel Castro has met his maker and will be sent to another land.”The debate audience, which had been admonished an hour earlier to remain silent, put its hands together for that one. Rooting for death has been a favorite pastime in these debates, and Newt Gingrich didn’t want to miss out. So he quickly endeavored to top Romney.Newt: “I don’t think Fidel is going to meet his maker. I think he’s going to the other place.” More applause.(Translation: “Mitt would be thankful for death, but I want death in hell.”)I braced myself for Rick Santorum’s topper, fearing that he’d want gays and abortion doctors to join Fidel in that other place, but instead he prattled about a budding Cuban-Venezuelan-Nicaraguan-Iranian conspiracy of “jihadists,” which gave those of us with professional obligations sufficient permission to lapse back to the state of mind typically induced by Ambien. Even Newt seemed weary last night. That alone speaks to the human toll of this ever-lengthening Republican campaign.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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