The Rich Really Are Different

In the last couple of years, we've occasionally seen stories where Wall Street types justify their enormous compensation packages by saying they work really, really hard. They stay late, they work weekends, they just keep their noses to the grindstone, and that's why they get paid what they do. Sure, $30 million a year is a lot of money. But the hedge fund manager who made it probably worked 1,000 times harder than the electrician who made $30,000. Right?

I thought of those Wall Streeters and their rhetoric about hard work when considering the question of Mitt Romney's tax returns. One of the things we've found out in the whole when-did-Romney-leave-Bain controversy is that even after he retired/went on a leave of absence, he was being paid at least $100,000 a year for doing what he swears was absolutely nothing. That's a lot of money for doing nothing, at least to people like you and me, but remember that to Mitt Romney, it's peanuts. According to the information he has released, he made over $42 million in 2010 and 2011 without doing any actual work. He hasn't held a job in five and a half years, since he left the Massachusetts governor's office. Tens of millions of dollars just keep pouring into his many bank accounts, without him lifting a finger. And of course, he pays a far lower tax rate on all that income than people who work for a living.

But it really seems that Romney has a hard time understanding why that would rankle people. The entire system is set up to allow people like him to play by a set of rules that was established by the wealthy, for the wealthy; but when you're the beneficiary, it seems like the prevailing order is a just order. And what Romney wants is to make income from investments and inheritances taxed at an even lower rate. You probably haven't heard, since there hasn't been much discussion about it, but Barack Obama's official position (even if he's not going to do much about it) is that investment income should be taxed at the same rate as wage income; in other words, money you work for shouldn't be taxed more (as it is now) than money you make when your money makes you more money. I'm sure that if somebody asked Mitt Romney about taxing all income at the same rate, he'd think the idea was nothing short of insane.

It's not impossible for someone to benefit greatly from that system and still manage to wrap their heads around the fact that it's unfair. There are plenty of rich people who do (Warren Buffett is the most visible example). I keep returning to Mitt's repeated comments that of course he took advantage of every tax loophole he could find to make sure he paid as little as possible. We could argue about whether that's unpatriotic, but the thing is that for most people who do a job and get paid a salary, there just aren't those kinds of loopholes available. Not only can't they afford to hire a team of accountants and tax lawyers; even if they could, there wouldn't be much those people could do for them.

There is obviously something in Mitt Romney's pre-2010 tax returns that he really, really doesn't want people to see. Just how awful it is, we have no way of knowing; it could be something truly shocking, or just more of the offshore accounts and low tax rates we already know about from his 2010 return. But whatever it is, revealing it would no doubt have the effect of reminding people just how different the rules people like Mitt Romney play by really are. And if he's afraid of that, maybe he's more self-aware than I'm giving him credit for.

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