After refusing for weeks to release his taxes, Mitt Romney now says he’ll do so — by tax day, April 15. But the real news is what Romney has now admitted about his taxes.
It’s not how much Romney earns. Everyone knows he’s comfortably in the top one-tenth of one percent.
It’s how much he pays of it in taxes. Romney says he pays a tax rate of “about 15 percent.”
That’s lower than the tax rate most of America’s middle class face and far lower than the 35 percent top rate after the Bush tax cut. (To put this in perspective, recall that the top income tax rate under Dwight Eisenhower was 91 percent.)
Newt Gingrich immediately pounced on Mitt’s admission as evidence that Newt’s proposed flat 15 percent tax is ideal, and wants to call it the “Romney tax.” Newt’s flat tax is a fraud. It would dramatically lower the taxes of most of the top 1 percenters and increase the taxes of most of the rest of us.
The real smoking gun is how Romney manages to pay only 15 percent on what’s been his money-gusher of compensation from Bain Capital. Romney hasn’t released his tax returns yet, but the most obvious answer is he treats his Bain income as capital gains — subject to the current capital gains rate of only 15 percent.
A loophole in the tax laws allows private-equity managers like Romney to treat their compensation as capital gains. It’s legal but it’s a scandal. Income from employment is employment income, period.
Private-equity managers cling to the technicality that the money they take out of their companies comes from the appreciation of assets they own and sell. That may be true, but it’s still income they get from their jobs. Common sense would dictate it be treated as ordinary income.
Congress has vowed for years to close this loophole. But somehow it persists. Even when Democrats have been in charge, they haven’t been able to close it.
Guess why. The managers and executives of private-equity funds are big donors to Republicans and Democrats alike.
Don’t call it the Romney tax, as Newt wants to do. Call it the Romney tax loophole. And let him explain why he thinks it’s justified.
Mitt Romney is casting the 2012 campaign as “free enterprise on trial” – defining free enterprise as achieving success through “hard work and risking-taking.” Tea-Party favorite Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina says he’s supporting Romney because “we really need someone who understands how risk, taking risk … is the way we create jobs, create choices, expand freedom.” Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donahue, defending Romney, explains “this economy is about risk. If you don’t take risk, you can’t have success.”
Wait a minute. Who do they think are bearing the risks? Their blather about free enterprise risk-taking has it upside down. The higher you go in the economy, the easier it is to make money without taking any personal financial risk at all. The lower you go, the bigger the risks.
Wall Street has become the center of riskless free enterprise. Bankers risk other peoples’ money. If deals turn bad, they collect their fees in any event. The entire hedge-fund industry is designed to hedge bets so big investors can make money whether the price of assets they bet on rises or falls. And if the worst happens, the biggest bankers and investors now know they’ll be bailed out by taxpayers because they’re too big to fail.
But the worst examples of riskless free enteprise are the CEOs who rake in millions after they screw up royally.
Near the end of 2007, Charles Prince resigned as CEO of Citgroup after announcing the bank would need an additional $8 billion to $11 billion in write-downs related to sub-prime mortgages gone bad. Prince left with a princely $30 million in pension, stock awards, and stock options, along with an office, car, and a driver for five years.
Stanley O’Neal’s five-year tenure as CEO of Merrill Lynch ended about the same time, when it became clear Merrill would have to take tens of billions in write-downs on bad sub-prime mortgages and be bought up at a fire-sale price by Bank of America. O’Neal got a payout worth $162 million.
Pay-for-failure extends far beyond Wall Street. In a study released last week, GMI, a well-regarded research firm that monitors executive pay, analyzed the largest severance packages received by ex-CEOs since 2000.
On the list: Thomas E. Freston, who lasted just nine months as CEO of Viacom before being terminated, and left with a walk-away package of $101 million.
Also William D. McGuire, who in 2006 was forced to resign as CEO of UnitedHealth over a stock-options scandal, and for his troubles got pay package worth $286 million.
And Hank A. McKinnell, Jr.’s, whose five-year tenure as CEO of Pfizer was marked by a $140 billion drop in Pfizer’s stock market value. Notwithstanding, McKinnell walked away with a payout of nearly $200 million, free lifetime medical coverage, and an annual pension of $6.5 million. (At Pfizer’s 2006 annual meeting a plane flew overhead towing a banner reading “Give it back, Hank!”)
Not to forget Douglas Ivester of Coca Cola, who stepped down as CEO in 2000 after a period of stagnant growth and declining earnings, with an exit package worth $120 million.
If anything, pay for failure is on the rise. Last September, Leo Apotheker was shown the door at Hewlett-Packard, with an exit package worth $13 million. Stephen Hilbert left Conseco with an estimated $72 million even though value of Conseco’s stock during his tenure sank from $57 to $5 a share on its way to bankruptcy.
But as economic risk-taking has declined at the top, it’s been increasing at the middle and below. More than 20 percent of the American workforce is now “contingent” – temporary workers, contractors, independent consultants – with no security at all.
Even full-time workers who have put in decades with a company can now find themselves without a job overnight – with no parachute, no help finding another job, and no health insurance.
Meanwhile the proportion of large and medium-sized companies (200 or more workers) offering full health care coverage continues to drop – from 74 percent in 1980 to under 10 percent today. Twenty-five years ago, two-thirds of large and medium-sized employers also provided health insurance to their retirees. Now, fewer than 15 percent do.
The risk of getting old with no pension is also rising. In 1980, more than 80 percent of large and medium-sized firms gave their workers “defined-benefit” pensions that guaranteed a fixed amount of money every month after they retired. Now it’s down to under 10 percent. Instead, they offer “defined contribution” plans where the risk is on the workers. When the stock market tanks, as it did in 2008, the 401(k) plan tanks along with it. Today, a third of all workers with defined-benefit plans contribute nothing, which means their employers don’t either.
And the risk of losing earnings continues to grow. Even before the crash of 2008, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics at University of Michigan found that over any given two-year stretch about half of all families experienced some decline in income. And the downturns were becoming progressively larger. In the 1970s, the typical drop was about 25 percent. By late 1990s, it was 40 percent. By the mid-2000s, family incomes rose and fell twice as much as they did in the mid-1970s, on average.
What Romney and the cheerleaders of risk-taking free enterprise don’t want you to know is the risks of the economy have been shifting steadily away from CEOs and Wall Street – and on to average working people. It’s not just income and wealth that are surging to the top. Economic security is moving there as well, leaving the rest of us stranded.
To the extent free enterprise is on trial, the real question is whether the system is rigged in favor of those at the top who get rewarded no matter how badly they screw up, while the rest of us get screwed no matter how hard we work.
The jury will report back Election Day. In the meantime, Obama and the Democrats shouldn’t allow Romney and the Republicans to act as defenders of risk-taking free enterprise. Americans need to know the truth. The only way the economy can thrive is if we have more risk-taking at the top, and more economic security below.
It’s one thing to criticize Mitt Romney for being a businessman with the wrong values. It’s quite another to accuse him and his former company, Bain Capital, of doing bad things. If what Bain Capital did under Romney was bad for society, the burden shifts to Romney’s critics to propose laws that would prevent Bain and other companies from doing such bad things in the future.
Don’t hold your breath.
Newt Gingrich says Bain under Romney carried out “clever legal ways to loot a company.” Gingrich calls it the “Wall Street model” where “you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers,” and charges that “if someone comes in, takes all the money out of your company and then leaves you bankrupt while they go off with millions, that’s not traditional capitalism.”
Where has Newt been for the last thirty years? Leveraged buyouts became part of traditional capitalism in the 1980s when enterprising financiers began borrowing piles of money, often at high interest rates, to buy up the stock of ongoing companies they believe undervalued. They’d back the loans with the company assets, then typically sell off divisions and slim payrolls, and resell the company to the public at a higher share price – pocketing the gains.
It’s a good deal for the financiers (the $25 billion buyout of RJR-Nabisco in 1988 netted the partners of Kohlberg, Kravis, and Roberts around $70 million each – and most of Mitt Romney’s estimated $200 million fortune comes from the same maneuvers), but not always for the company or its workers.
Some workers lose their jobs when the company downsizes. Others, when the company, now laden with debt, can’t meet its payments to creditors and has to go into bankruptcy. According to the Wall Street Journal, of 77 companies Bain invested in during Romney’s tenure there, 22 percent either filed for bankruptcy or closed their doors by end of eighth year after Bain’s investment.
But, hey, this is American capitalism – at least as it’s been practiced for the past three decades. Is Newt proposing to ban leveraged buyouts? Or limit the amount of debt a company can take on? Or prevent financiers – or even CEOs and management teams – from taking a public company private and then reselling it to the public at a higher price?
None of the above.
Rick Perry criticizes Romney and Bain pushing the quest for profits too far. “There is nothing wrong with being successful and making money,” says Perry. “But getting rich off failure and sticking someone else with the bill is indefensible.”
Yet getting rich off failure and sticking someone else with the bill is what Wall Street financiers try to do every day. It’s called speculation – and at least since the demise of the Glass-Steagall Act, investment bankers have been allowed to gamble with commercial bank deposits, other people’s money.
So is Perry proposing to resurrect Glass-Steagall? Not a chance.
Gingrich, Perry, and others are putting particular focus on the people who lost their jobs as a result of Romney’s Bain Capital. Gingrich’s Super PAC will be running $3.5 million of ads featuring emotional interviews with some of them.
But what, exactly, are Romney’s opponents proposing to do about layoffs that harm so many people? Millions of Americans have lost their jobs over the last four years – and as a result have often lost their health insurance, their homes, and their savings.
Are Gingrich, Perry, and others proposing to expand health insurance coverage for jobless Americans and their families? All I hear from the Republicans is their determination to repeal the law that President Obama championed – which still leaves millions of Americans uninsured. Do Romney’s opponents have plans to keep people in their homes even when they’ve lost their jobs and can’t pay their mortgages? No. Do they propose expanding unemployment insurance? If memory serves, most of them were opposed to the last extension.
I’m all in favor of reforming capitalism, but you’ll permit me some skepticism when it comes to criticisms of Bain Capital coming from Romney’s Republican opponents. None of these Republican candidates has exactly distinguished himself with new ideas for giving Americans more economic security. To the contrary — until the assault on Romney and Bain Capital — every one of them has been a cheerleader for financial capitalism of the most brutal sort.
The party that has repeatedly saved capitalism from its own excesses and thereby preserved capitalism is the Democratic Party. So the only serious question here is what kind of serious reforms Obama will propose when, assuming Romney becomes the Republican nominee, Obama also criticizes Bain Capitalism.
Two years ago the unemployment rate was 9.9 percent. Now it’s 8.5 percent. At first blush that’s good news for the President. Actually it may not be.
Voters pay more attention to the direction the economy is moving than to how bad or good it is. So if the positive trend continues in the months leading up to Election Day, Obama’s prospects of being reelected improve.
But if you consider the number of working-age Americans who have stopped looking for work over the past two years because they couldn’t find a job, and young people too discouraged even to start looking, you might worry.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which measures the unemployment rate every month, counts people as unemployed only if they’re looking for work. If they’re too discouraged even to enter the job market, they’re not counted.
If all the potential workers who have dropped out of the job market over the past two years were counted, today’s unemployment rate wouldn’t be 8.5 percent. It would be 9.5 percent. That’s only a bit down from the 9.9 percent unemployment rate two years ago.
The genuinely good news, though, is the Bureau of Labor Statistics also tells us 200,000 new jobs were added in December. Granted, this doesn’t put much of a dent in the 10 million jobs we’ve either lost since the recession began or needed to keep up with the growth of the working-age population (at this rate we won’t return to our pre-recession level of employment until 2019) but, hey, it’s at least the right direction.
But here’s the political irony. This little bit of good news is likely to raise the hopes of the great army of the discouraged – many of whom will now start looking for work.
And what happens when they start looking? If they don’t find a job (and, let’s face it, the chances are still slim) they’ll be counted as unemployed.
Which means the unemployment rate will very likely edge upward in coming months. This will be bad for the President because it will look as though the trend is in the wrong direction again.
Meryl Streep’s eery reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” brings to mind Thatcher’s most famous quip, “there is no such thing as ‘society.’” None of the dwindling herd of Republican candidates has quoted her yet but they might as well considering their unremitting bashing of everything public.
What defines a society is a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions — public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on.
Public institutions are supported by all taxpayers, and are available to all. If the tax system is progressive, those who better off (and who, presumably, have benefited from many of these same public institutions) help pay for everyone else.
“Privatize” means pay-for-it-yourself. The practical consequence of this in an economy whose wealth and income are now more concentrated than any time in 90 years is to make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.
Much of what’s called “public” is increasingly a private good paid for by users — ever-higher tolls on public highways and public bridges, higher tuitions at so-called public universities, higher admission fees at public parks and public museums.
Much of the rest of what’s considered “public” has become so shoddy that those who can afford to find private alternatives. As public schools deteriorate, the upper-middle class and wealthy send their kids to private ones. As public pools and playgrounds decay, they buy memberships in private tennis and swimming clubs. As public hospitals decline, they pay premium rates for private care.
Gated communities and office parks now come with their own manicured lawns and walkways, security guards, and backup power systems.
Why the decline of public institutions? The financial squeeze on government at all levels since 2008 explains only part of it. The slide really started more than three decades ago with so-called “tax revolts” by a middle class whose earnings had stopped advancing even though the economy continued to grow. Most families still wanted good public services and institutions but could no longer afford the tab.
From that time onward, almost all the gains from growth have gone to the top. But as the upper middle class and the rich began shifting to private institutions, they withdrew political support for public ones. In consequence, their marginal tax rates dropped — setting off a vicious cycle of diminishing revenues and deteriorating quality, spurring more flight from public institutions. Tax revenues from corporations also dropped as big companies went global — keeping their profits overseas and their tax bills to a minimum.
But that’s not the whole story. America no longer values public goods as we did before.
The great expansion of public institutions in America began in the early years of 20th century when progressive reformers championed the idea that we all benefit from public goods. Excellent schools, roads, parks, playgrounds, and transit systems would knit the new industrial society together, create better citizens, and generate widespread prosperity. Education, for example, was less a personal investment than a public good — improving the entire community and ultimately the nation.
In subsequent decades — through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War — this logic was expanded upon. Strong public institutions were seen as bulwarks against, in turn, mass poverty, fascism, and then communism. The public good was palpable: We were very much a society bound together by mutual needs and common threats. (It was no coincidence that the greatest extensions of higher education after World War II were the GI Bill and the National Defense Education Act, and the largest public works project in history called the National Defense Interstate Highway Act.)
But in a post-Cold War America distended by global capital, distorted by concentrated income and wealth, undermined by unlimited campaign donations, and rocked by a wave of new immigrants easily cast by demagogues as “them,” the notion of the public good has faded. Not even Democrats any longer use the phrase “the public good.” Public goods are now, at best, “public investments.” Public institutions have morphed into “public-private partnerships;” or, for Republicans, simply “vouchers.”
Mitt Romney’s speaks derisively of what he terms the Democrats’ “entitlement” society in contrast to his “opportunity” society. At least he still envisions a society. But he hasn’t explained how ordinary Americans will be able to take advantage of good opportunities without good public schools, affordable higher education, good roads, and adequate health care.
His “entitlements” are mostly a mirage anyway. Medicare is the only entitlement growing faster than the GDP but that’s because the costs of health care are growing faster than the economy, and any attempt to turn Medicare into a voucher — without either raising the voucher in tandem with those costs or somehow taming them — will just reduce the elderly’s access to health care. Social Security, for its part, hasn’t contributed to the budget deficit; it’s had surpluses for years.
Other safety nets are in tatters. Unemployment insurance reaches just 40 percent of the jobless these days (largely because eligibility requires having had a steady full-time job for a number of years rather than, as with most people, a string of jobs or part-time work).
What could Mitt be talking about? Outside of defense, domestic discretionary spending is down sharply as a percent of the economy. Add in declines in state and local spending, and total public spending on education, infrastructure, and basic research has dropped from 12 percent of GDP in the 1970s to less than 3 percent by 2011.
Only in one respect is Romney right. America has created a whopping entitlement for the biggest Wall Street banks and their top executives — who, unlike most of the rest of us, are no longer allowed to fail. They can also borrow from the Fed at almost no cost, then lend the money out at 3 to 6 percent.
All told, Wall Street’s entitlement is the biggest offered by the federal government, even though it doesn’t show up in the budget. And it’s not even a public good. It’s just private gain.
We’re losing public goods available to all, supported by the tax payments of all and especially the better off. In its place we have private goods available to the very rich, supported by the rest of us.
Even Lady Thatcher would have been appalled.
My political prediction for 2012 (based on absolutely no inside information): Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden swap places. Biden becomes Secretary of State — a position he’s apparently coveted for years. And Hillary Clinton, Vice President.
So the Democratic ticket for 2012 is Obama-Clinton.
Why do I say this? Because Obama needs to stir the passions and enthusiasms of a Democratic base that’s been disillusioned with his cave-ins to regressive Republicans. Hillary Clinton on the ticket can do that.
Moreover, the economy won’t be in superb shape in the months leading up to Election Day. Indeed, if the European debt crisis grows worse and if China’s economy continues to slow, there’s a better than even chance we’ll be back in a recession. Clinton would help deflect attention from the bad economy and put it on foreign policy, where she and Obama have shined.
The deal would also make Clinton the obvious Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 — offering the Democrats a shot at twelve (or more) years in the White House, something the Republicans had with Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush but which the Democrats haven’t had since FDR. Twelve years gives the party in power a chance to reshape the Supreme Court as well as put an indelible stamp on America.
According to the latest Gallup poll, the duo are this year’s most admired man and woman This marks the fourth consecutive win for Obama while Clinton has been the most admired woman in each of the last 10 years. She’a topped the list 16 times since 1993, exceeding the record held by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who topped the list 13 times.
Obama-Clinton in 2012. It’s a natural.