After months of being hounded to release tax returns, Mitt Romney finally released some tax returns. Too bad they weren't the interesting ones.
Well, there was one interesting item: Romney paid more money in taxes than he had to last year, just so he wouldn't have an embarrassingly low tax rate. But we're just going to have to take the word of his accountant that there's nothing embarrassing in any of his returns before 2010, which he has doggedly refused to release.
Romney on Friday afternoon released his personal tax return for the year 2011, along with some returns for trusts of which he's the beneficiary. Hundreds of amateur tax experts are still combing through the returns for interesting details.
But if there is anything earth-shattering in these documents, then his accountant, PricewaterhouseCoopers, should be fired immediately. These are almost certainly the most highly anticipated tax returns in the history of America, and they have been stage-managed down to the last detail.
Take, for example, Romney's tax rate. He paid an effective federal income tax rate of 14.1 percent on nearly $13.7 million in income last year, but he could have taken a lower rate -- about 12 percent, according to one estimate. He decided not to take all of the charitable deductions he could have, taking credit for $2.25 million instead of the full $4 million for which he was eligible.
The Romney campaign said the candidate passed on taking a bigger deduction in order to make sure his tax rate stayed above the 13 percent level Romney recently said was his minimum tax rate of the past decade.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, which is as trustworthy as any other accounting firm, said Romney paid 38.5 percent of his gross adjusted income in federal and state taxes and charitable contributions.
It is hard to fault Romney for giving a lot of money to charity or for paying more in taxes than he has to. Why, only the most cold-hearted of capitalists would criticize somebody for paying more in taxes than they had to. Certainly doing such a thing should not make a person, you know, unqualified to be president of the United States or anything like that.
What's that you say? A cold-hearted capitalist did in fact criticize people who pay more in taxes than they have to? Why yes, Mitt Romney did say just that, back on July 29:
I don't pay more than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don't think I'd be qualified to become president. I'd think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires.
BuzzFeed reports that the gaffe-conscious Romney campaign today acknowledged the old statement by the candidate, but said that he was in a "unique position" of having already promised to pay more than 13 percent, so what can you do?
It remains to be seen just how much goodwill that $1.75 million in foresworn tax deductions will buy Romney, given his recent assertion that the half of the population that pays no income taxes is a bunch of irresponsible layabouts. In fact, Romney could always decide to amend his returns and take the deduction, Ryan Grim pointed out.
But his still-low tax rate, which is below the 15 percent federal payroll tax rate that some of that bunch of irresponsible layabouts pays, will raise questions about the fairness of our tax system. Romney pays very low rates in part because most of his income comes from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate than normal income. That's a good thing, as Matt Yglesias at Slate notes. Not so great? The "carried interest" income Romney still gets from his old private-equity firm Bain Capital, which is taxed like investment income when it's really labor income.
Meanwhile, we still wait fruitlessly for Romney's tax returns from prior years, which promise to be far more interesting than this one.
In a mostly content-free letter filed along with the returns, PwC said Romney had an average federal income tax rate of 20.2 percent between 1990 and 2009 and that his rate never fell below 13.7 percent. That is an average of each year's rate, not an average of the total amount of taxes he paid over that stretch. So he could have some high-income years with low tax rates and some low-income years with higher tax rates.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who famously claimed that he knew a guy who told him that Romney did not pay taxes for the past decade, was apparently gearing up to make a statement at some point. It's doubtful that he will back down.
One way Romney's campaign could avoid further tax questions, now that they have given us just a taste of what's in the older returns, is to just go all the way and release them.