As most are probably aware, Romney announced a two days ago that he did not intend to release his tax returns even if he were selected as the Republican presidential nominee. See, e.g., Mitt Romney Declines to Release Tax Returns, Cementing Posture of Secrecy, Huffington Post (Dec. 22, 2011) (quoting Romney as announcing "Never say never, but I don't intend to do so").
The reasons that such releases have traditionally been pushed for presidential candidates are myriad. Voters can understand more about a candidate's wealth and potential conflicts from reviewing the returns. They also have some idea of the candidate's understanding of finance from viewing the returns.
What kinds of things likely prompt Romney not to want to release the returns? Are they issues that voters might reasonably take into account in assessing his candidacy or are they irrelevant concerns?
One can speculate that Romney may be worried that the stark revelation of his immense wealth compared to most voters will be damaging. We are living through a second Gilded Age, when wealth is concentrated in enormous measure in the hands of very few Americans at the top, and the vast majority of us are just barely getting along and are worried about being tossed out of the middle class into the New Poor. In that context, surely the wealth of a candidate is information that is relevant to voters. Persons of immense wealth may have trouble understanding the daily trials and tribulations of 'average' Americans who have to save judiciously for unusual expenses and who may be thrust into bankruptcy by a car accident, storm-caused damage to a home, sudden change in job possibliites, or onset of a serious illness. Further, Romney is trying to take advantage of his experience as a businessman and claims about his market abilities and savvy financial training: that makes his tax returns directly relevant and it strikes this voter as contradictory that he both wants to claim it and hide it.
Given Romney's wealth, it is likely that most of his income is in the form of income from capital that is privileged under our tax code with especially low preferential capital gains rates--capital gains, almost all corporate dividends and income from pension funds (his private equity firm Bain Capital, still pays him a generous share of 'profits' through a deferred compensation plan--another tax -reduction scheme that most Americans can't benefit from). Surely it is relevant to voters whether a presidential nominee is particularly benefited by the current tax laws that favor the wealthy or not. And surely it is relevant just how extensive that benefit is. For example, Romney may well pay a lower effective tax rate than many Americans who have many times less income than Romney does. Voters are entitled to know that fact, since it will undoubtedly influence Romney's views about tax reform. As David Donnelly, the national campaigns director of the Public Campaign Action fund, notes in the Huffington Post piece, "the implications are that he is afraid of what this says about who he is and who he will represent if he is in the White House."
The decision not to release tax returns also provides more evidence of a person who does not believe in transparency. Romney hasn't released information about campaign contribution "bundlers." He destroyed records from his tenure as governor of Massachusetts. This tendency towards secrecy runs against the importance of openness for the sustainability of democratic institutions.
Romney is "one of the wealthiest men ever to run for the presidency" and he made most of that money in the extremely tax-advantaged world of private equity fund managers (who have claimed preferential capital gains rates on their compensation income under the "carried interest" loophole in the partnership provisions that the wealthy members of Congress haven't yet been able to bring themselves to close). Shear, Romney Says He Won't Release Tax REturns, New York Times, Dec. 22, 2011. Release of returns would call attention to the privileged tax system applicable to private equity fund managers, and to the fact that Romney enjoyed that kind of special tax system while average Americans who toil for a living pay higher rates on their compensation. Shouldn't we have that information in front of us in black and white?
Tax policy is where a great many of the important decisions affecting every facet of the economic wellbeing of this country are now being made. For a presidential candidate to refuse to release his/her tax returns and allow citizens to arrive at their own conclusions about how the candidate's wealth, tax advantages, and tax positions will influence his/her thinking on tax policy issues is worrisome.
Of course, the mere fact that there will be rampant speculation about the tax rate that Romney pays and the income that would be revealed on his tax returns if released is itself a reason to release the returns. Americans will be interested, and they will want to understand how Romney's tax rates compare to their own. The Democratic National Committee has already created a webstie that allows people to compare based on assumptions about Romney's rates, according to the New York Times story, at www.whatmittpays.com. We already have too much misinformation and speculative information in our national campaigns, so it behooves Romney to release the forms so that people can see what the real information is.
And finally, the fact that Romney has challenged his own opponents to release their tax returns (Ted Kennedy in the 1994 Senate race) should be a "shame-on-you" reason for him to release his own returns now. If he thought that Kennedy's tax returns would be relevant information for voters, then it is surely reasonable to assume that he thinks that his own tax returns would be relevant information for voters.
There doesn't seem to be any valid reason for Romney to withhold his tax returns if he is the nominee. If he doesn't release them, then voters should attribute it to Romney's sense of patrician privilege. And it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume along with that his acceptance of the corporatist agenda to shift more and more taxes onto working Americans and his inability to understand the daily lives of ordinary Americans. It should count against him in considering just how he will handle the key economic issues of our times--changes to the tax code that will finally require the wealthy and high income to pay more to redress the imbalance of the numerous changes made in the last 40 years that favor the wealthy.