Tax Face-Off: Romney vs. Me – NYTimes.com


April 12, 2012

Tax Face-Off: Romney vs. Me

By TIMOTHY EGAN

Timothy Egan

Timothy Eganon American politics and life, as seen from the West.

 

Stubbornly, perversely, stupidly, I insist on doing my own taxes every year. I don’t cut my own hair. I don’t pickle backyard cabbage or home-school my kids. But I plow ahead with this most direct act of citizenship for one reason: if you want to understand power and influence in this country, you have to be familiar with the tax code.

My friends say I’m a moron, missing out on key loopholes. They invoke the old saying that he who has himself for a lawyer (or accountant) has a fool for a client. Stipulated. On to the returns:

This year, I did my 1040 and its attendant nightmare forms while comparing my family’s financial documents with those of Willard M. Romney’s. He paid 13.9 percent in taxes on income of $21.7 million for 2010 and about the same rate for the not fully completed 2011 returns.

I’m going to pay double Romney’s rate on a mere fraction of his income. But you won’t get any class-war envy from me about a man worth upward of $250 million paying the same rate as someone earning, say, $55,000 a year. Nope. There’s a larger point here than the inequality one, compelling though it is.

Remember: The tax return is a blueprint for how to earn and spend money. It encourages us to do some things and discourages us from doing others.

One disincentive, comparing Romney’s taxes to mine: don’t work. The tax code discourages work, certainly for the rich. And Romney’s plan for the future would further discourage work for poor households with children or those paying for their kids to go to college.

Take a look at Line 7 of the 1040, the one where you report wages, salaries and tips — work. It’s from your W2. Romney, of course, had no wages, salaries or tips, which can be taxed at up to 35 percent. His biggest disclosure is Line 13, capital gain — paper profits — where he weighs in with $12,573,249 from 2010. On that, he pays a mere 15 percent.

The other place to report money earned by doing actual work is on Schedule C. That’s where I put income from books, talks, pamphleteering. And so does Romney. Under the profession category, he doesn’t report himself as a businessman or a politician. He’s listed as “independent artists, writers or performers” — just like a mime, or Carrot Top.

In 2010, Romney’s take from this dodge we share, mostly speeches for his part, was $528,871, a mere 2.5 percent of his income. Were he to get serious about being a hardworking indie performer, he might earn millions. But again, even if he were able to take a deduction for that car elevator he’s putting into his remodeled manse in California, his earnings from his speaking business would be taxed at up to 35 percent.

Better to do no work and pay taxes at a far lower rate on capital gains or a category Romney shares with certain hedge fund managers: compensation from his Bain Capital days also taxed at 15 percent called carried interest.

Another disincentive, as mentioned: don’t send your kids to college. Currently, I can apply for the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which gives families paying tuition a cut of up to $2,500 on taxes owed — a meaningful break.

Romney knows something about college. He has two degrees from Harvard. Three of his five sons — Tagg, Matt and Josh — have M.B.A.’s from Harvard, giving the family a coxed scull of Crimson-red advanced degrees. It’ll cost you about $84,000 a year to attend Harvard Business School, with tuition, housing and related expenses.

But don’t try getting a tax credit for that under a President Romney: his plan calls for eliminating this college incentive, along with doing away with an expanded credit for working families with children at home.

What else? Home mortgage. The government encourages you to load up on home debt and, in that sense, certainly pushed unqualified people into carrying oversize loans, which fed the housing collapse. That, and those tax-rewarded hedge fund managers making risky bets, helped to bring the world economy to it knees. Your tax code at work!

I’m not fluent enough in Internal Revenue Service argot to understand why I probably should have stashed some money overseas. But with a Swiss bank account and holdings in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, Romney by example demonstrated another kind of incentive — invest in foreign countries while paying the absolute minimum in taxes to your own nation.

“I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more,” Romney said earlier this year.

That’s the key thing: legal, always the greater scandal. I’ve been audited twice; once, I prevailed, another time my math was off. But Romney and the one-in-four millionaires who pay a lower tax rate than most middle-class Americans glide along on audit-tested breaks, courtesy of a lobbying army working night and day to preserve the absurdity of the tax code.

So, taking my cue from the social engineers who’ve manipulated the code, I’m looking to follow Romney’s example next year: work less, stash money overseas, certainly don’t pay for junior year in college. And, of course, complain about my burden.

 Tax Face-Off: Romney vs. Me – NYTimes.com.

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