As a diversion from widespread attention being paid to his latest rhetorical screw-up, Mitt Romney's release of his 2011 tax return may have some value. As a basis for revealing how much the GOP presidential candidate pays or doesn't pay, on average, in federal income taxes, it leaves a lot to the imagination.
His decision to underclaim his deduction for charitable giving so that his tax total is higher than it would have been otherwise is further evidence of Romney's willingness to massage facts and his ability to change positions on a dime. Romney said not long ago that he paid all the taxes the law requires him to pay. But not for 2011. He paid more.
He paid an effective 14.1 percent tax rate, which he called "fair," but the rate would have been lower had he claimed the deductions he was entitled to based on the more than $4 million he gave to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other charities. The man who directs Mitt and Ann Romney's blind trusts said the couple limited their deductions to "conform" with Romney's statement that he has paid at least 13 percent a year over the past 10 years.
The Romneys should be commended for sharing their wealth by giving to their church and to other charities. The tax deduction for such gifts is rightly designed to encourage not only the wealthy but all Americans to "redistribute" some of their bounty.
But all this analysis of Romney's 2011 return, just the second he has released, is less informative to potential voters than the fact he refuses to release his returns for more years. Ten years of returns is generally expected of presidential candidates, although none is required by law. It's not so easy to make prior year returns "conform" to campaign claims.
It is not out of line for the American people to expect more of Romney, who has been criticized for sheltering income in off-shore accounts, and who was disdainful of "47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax and are dependent on the government." Without giving us a look at his returns, he runs the risk of being suspected of belonging to the non-taxpaying group he dismisses as unimportant.
But it's clear that the Romneys, who reported $13.7 million in income in 2011 and a similar amount the previous year, pay a smaller percentage of that income in taxes because most of it comes from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate than most Americans pay on their wages.
Reforming the tax system so that the wealthy pay a higher share is something a President Romney might take a look at. But his uncommon wealth and his party ideology make that unlikely.