By DAVID BROOKS and GAIL COLLINS
January 18, 2012
David Brooks. Gail, I’m sorry we missed each other in South Carolina, but I’ve moved on to the next primary state, Florida, in search of people who pay Mitt Romney’s 15 percent tax rate. I’m in Palm Beach now. I think I’ve found them.
By the way, why do we make candidates release their tax forms? Has there ever been a case where a presidential decision has been influenced by some bit of information that might appear on a tax form? I doubt it. Has information on a tax form ever influenced anybody’s vote? Never heard of such a case.
Gail Collins. You know I’ve never thought about that. Until Romney, I can’t remember anybody whining about it.
David. The people calling for Romney to release his taxes say the public has a right to know where his money comes from. I’m not the closest student of the Constitution, but did I miss something? Which amendment is this right mentioned in? Perhaps it’s a natural right. I don’t think it’s in the Old Testament. The Book of Mormon, maybe?
Gail. Not a sacred rule, perhaps. But I think it makes sense. We’re talking about the presidency here. We’re giving him/her the power to wage war, blow up the planet, ruin the economy. I think we kind of have the right to pry.
Or, in the immortal words of Rick Perry to the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce: “Everybody who wants to be president of the United States – you’d better be ready for your sheets to be lifted up.” I’m sure he meant sheets of paper. In the tax accounts.
David. Can you think of a case when we have learned something from a disclosed tax return that was in any way useful? From Romney we’ll probably learn that he’s rich. We knew that. We’ll probably learn that he pays a 15 percent capital gains rate. This has been one of the most well-documented aspects of the private equity business. We’ll probably learn that he gives away a lot in charity. He’s conservative. Conservatives generally give much more to charity than liberals, even excluding church donations. There’s no surprise there.
Gail. No fair diverting the discussion with that charity thing. I don’t think Mitt would have brought up the 15 percent figure at all if he didn’t think he was in a corner. And while I don’t know if it’ll affect the election, it seems like an excellent education for the American public in how the tax system works to the advantage of certain citizens.
David. My own view is that the desire for full disclosure stems from a few things. First, pure prurience. Second, members of what used to be called the New Class perpetually labor under the delusion that other people dislike the rich as much as they do and if they can only disclose that someone is rich that will end their political chances. Third, there is a misbegotten ideology haunting the land, the ideology of sunshinism. This is the belief that everything should be made public.
Gail. I can’t believe you’re against sunshinism. We’re in the shining-of-sun-into-dark-corners business. And we’re only asking the man who wants to determine the future of our tax code how he made the current one work for himself.
David. Sunshinism is a destructive ideology. Forcing people
to financially undress in public is just one of those incursions that repels decent people from running for office.
Gail. I repeat that we’re not talking about a guy running for the Planning and Zoning commission here. It’s not irrational for us to know what particular tax breaks a major presidential candidate has held near and dear in his own personal wealth-building life.
David. It also destroys people’s faith in government. Have you noticed that as democracy has become more open, cynicism has skyrocketed and the effectiveness of government has gone down the toilet? Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has the best observation on this — that parts of government should be hidden for the same reason middle-aged people should wear clothes.
Gail. Let me stress, we are not asking anybody to take off their clothes. But I am not going to get behind the idea that it’s better for people to know less about their government. I don’t like the idea of disillusioning the public, but that horse is pretty much out of the barn.
Did you know that the highest voter turnout in any presidential election was for William Henry Harrison v. Martin Van Buren? It was the worst campaign ever! Harrison’s entire political identity was a total myth. He was marketed as a poor and humble soldier when in fact he was the product of Mitt-level wealth and breeding. But people were very enthusiastic and not cynical at all. What did they get out of it? William Henry Harrison.
David. If we’re going to release tax returns, I think we should also release college transcripts. I’d actually be curious to see who got better grades at Harvard, Romney or Obama. Not that I have any right to know.
Gail. You know, I have always had a suspicion that the reason John Kerry was so reluctant to release his own estimable war records in response to the Swift -boating was because he was afraid his Yale grades would get out in the same package.
David. Now I could see making people release their tax forms if we imposed an income test on presidencies. To qualify to be president you’d have to be worth, say, $20 million.
This would be entirely sensible if we judged presidents the way universities judge incoming students. If you do it strictly as a matter of correlation, it’s at least modestly true that rich people make better presidents: Washington, Jefferson (who was land rich), the Roosevelts, Kennedy, Reagan. I know Lincoln wasn’t rich, but at least he worked as a corporate lawyer for many years.
Gail. Yipes! Washington — married a rich widow. Jefferson — inherited and blew all the money. Roosevelts — inherited. Kennedy — inherited. I give it to Reagan that he made his money selling Borax on “Death Valley Days” entirely on his own.
David. Sorry to go off on such a series of rants. To be honest, my brain has hurt ever since Ron Paul made that distinction between military spending and defense spending in the debate the other night. Was the invasion of Normandy military spending or defense spending? What about the Battle of the Bulge? I’m totally confused.
Gail. Try this. If you don’t like it, it’s military spending. If you like it, it’s for defense. If you really want to know something secret, it’s transparency. If you don’t, it’s prying.