Two things about Mitt Romney’s tax returns, released last week, stand out like a spotlight on a dark night. The first is the amount he gave to charity in 2011 — $4,020,772, or 30 percent of his income. The other, more stunning, item is that he claimed only $2.25 million of this because he didn’t want to be pushed into a lower tax bracket.
Of course, he probably did this for political reasons, knowing full well he would be running for president in 2012, putting him under close scrutiny.
But politics also seems to saturate President Barack Obama’s tax returns. He gave 21.8 percent of his sizeable (by average American standards) income to charity, according to his 2011 returns.
That’s an impressive amount, as was the 14 percent in 2010 and the 25.1 percent in 2009, when he donated his entire Nobel Peace Prize earnings to charities.
But go back to the days before he was contemplating the White House and you get a different picture. As this Washington Post piece reports, Obama gave 1.2 percent in 2004, 1.4 percent in ’03 and 0.4 percent in ’02.
Romney hasn’t released tax returns prior to ’11, but his campaign says he averaged giving 13.5 percent of his income to charity over the last 20 years.
Reaction to this has been fairly muted from the left, while journalists more sympathetic to Romney have weighed in with admiration. This piece by John Podhoretz of the New York Post, said, “Mitt Romney is an extraordinarily, remarkably, astonishingly generous man. A good man. Maybe even a great man.
“That is all. There is no ‘but.’ Anyone who says otherwise is ignorant, stupid or a liar.”
Podhoretz said it would be wrong to cynically claim Romney’s charity is nothing more than a tax shelter. Nothing is being sheltered. Once the money is given to charity, it is gone. All you get is a deduction that, at the highest marginal rate, means you are excused from paying taxes on 35 percent of the money you gave away.
Over 20 years, he writes, this would likely mean the Romneys gave up $30 million in income to charity.
Brian Siegel, writing in the Daily Illini, the student paper of the University of Illinois, took Obama campaign manager David Axelrod to task for criticizing Romney for paying a higher tax rate than he ought to have.
“Let me get this straight, we are supposed to be mad that he didn’t claim all of his refund for the charitable contributions he made? I almost feel bad for Romney. He’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. God forbid he takes his full tax break and his effective tax rate dips below 10 percent — it would be political suicide.”
In truth, this is a minor side-note to the presidential campaign of 2012. Even to compare charitable contributions among candidates seems a bit crass. They can serve as a window to a person true character, but that window reveals only a small bit of what might be valuable as leader of the free world. My guess is many of us know some extremely generous people we otherwise wouldn’t trust with an arsenal of nuclear weapons or with crafting a nation’s fiscal policy or dealing with Iran.
Romney’s reluctance to release these returns, however, is curious. It’s no surprise that he’s an extremely wealthy man, or that much of his income is derived from investments that entitle him to a lower tax rate. However, he seems to have a sense of modesty about his contributions, entirely in keeping with his religion, that makes him reluctant to talk about how much he gives.