Since Barack Obama first announced his still-popular proposal to let the Bush tax cuts earners for the top two percent expire, Republicans have regurgitated a series of tried if untrue talking points to keep the wealthiest Americans from paying one more cent to Uncle Sam. As the data clearly show, tax cuts don't "pay for themselves" and higher rates for the rich don't kill investment or crush "job creators."
But as their presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a man one tax expert called the "poster child of what's wrong with the American tax system," prepares to face an electorate polls show is convinced "the present tax system benefits the rich and is unfair to the ordinary working man or woman," Republican leaders are returning to an old argument. Because the rich will always find ways to get around paying higher taxes, the GOP's best and brightest insist, there's no point in even trying.
"That's the reason why this is so misguided because you're right, the wealthy have an army of lawyers and accountants that can help them work around this so-called Buffett Tax, but it's individuals who are going to get hammered. And at a time when we're depending on the private sector to create investments to create jobs, this is going to discourage that. And that's why this is so disappointing."Coming from John Cornyn, the former Texas Supreme Court chief justice who threatened judges and praised waterboarding, this jaw-dropping justification for gilded-class tax avoidance is unsurprising. As it turns out, some of the leading lights of the conservative movement have long made the same point.
Among them was President George W. Bush. As the AP reported after a 2004 campaign event in Virginia:
He criticized Democrat John Kerry's proposal to eliminate tax cuts for the wealthy, saying that "the rich in America happen to be small business owners" who put people to work.Three years ago, supply-side snake oil salesman Arthur Laffer expounded at length on the theory that rich people are simply too smart to pay higher taxes. Echoing hotel heiress Leona Helmsley's famous quip that "only the little people pay taxes," Laffer told Paul Gigot of the Journal Editorial Report that finding new tax revenue "cannot be done at the high end because those people can get away from it":
Bush added that "the really rich people figure out how to dodge taxes anyway."
GIGOT: How are they going to go? It's now 35 percent marginal income tax rates. Under Clinton it was up to 39.6 and that's how high President Obama says he's willing to let it go. In the past, as you know, they were as high as 70 percent before Reagan came into office, and 90 percent under Roosevelt. How high are they going to go?Now in 2012, Mitt Romney is doing his best to prove Cornyn, Bush and Laffer right. It's bad enough that the $250 million man Romney pays only about 15 percent of his income to Uncle Sam each year, a rate well below most middle class families. Worse still, the notorious "carried interest" exemption for private equity managers Romney wants to preserve taxes him not at the ordinary income rate of 35 percent but at the capital gains rate now half of what it was only 15 years ago. (As it turns out, most of Mitt's millions each year come from his controversial former employer, Bain Capital.) On top of his Cayman Island investments and past Swiss bank accounts, Romney has created a $100 million trust fund for his sons - tax free. And thanks to some (apparently legal) chicanery on the part of his former employer, Mitt has also accumulated an IRA worth a reported $100 million. (The Romney camp even complained about that, worrying that recent tax code changes has "created a tax problem" for the former Massachusetts governor and asking, "Who wants to have $100 million in an IRA?") As Romney has repeatedly boasted:
LAFFER: That's right. I don't know how high they are going to go. I bet they'll go a lot, lot higher than 40 percent. I think they're going to extend the payroll tax. I mean, when you look at the income tax, Paul, I mean, you really can't collect much money from upper-income people. They know how to get around taxes. So if you want to raise revenues, you've got to do it in low-level, broad-based taxes. That includes the income tax. That includes the payroll tax. That includes sales taxes. So would I guess they're really going to go after these the low-level, high-revenue based taxes in the next four or five years.
"I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more."Of course, that's not the issue. Few suspect Mitt Romney has done anything illegal in the tax returns he has (and hasn't) released. Instead, most Americans believe those IRS filings would simply confirm that Romney plays by a different set of rules. As Paul Krugman explained:
But the larger question isn't what Mitt Romney's tax returns have to say about Mitt Romney; it's what they have to say about U.S. tax policy. Is there a good reason why the rich should bear a startlingly light tax burden?Because, as George W. Bush happily put it, "the really rich people figure out how to dodge taxes anyway."
For they do. If Mr. Romney is telling the truth about his taxes, he's actually more or less typical of the very wealthy.
Note: It's worth noting that Bloomberg News recently explained how "Top Earners Can Find Ways around Buffett Rule." Meanwhile, Mitt Romney's tax plan offers another budget-busting windfall for the rich - like Mitt Romney.