Mitt Romney's admission last week that most of his income is taxed at the 15 percent rate on dividends -- a privilege that most benefits the ultra-wealthy, as opposed to the higher income tax rates (up to 35 percent) on the incomes of 99 percent of Americans -- was notable mainly for his continued resistance to disclosing his tax returns for all prior years.
Indeed, Romney has promised only to disclose his tax returns for 2011, and then only in the tax-filing deadline month of April. That would give him the opportunity to defer or shelter much of last year's income in trusts, restricting transparency and an unvarnished view of the dimensions of his fortune and how he earned it.
American voters deserve much broader information and full disclosure of his income tax returns. The public has a right to how an admittedly rich presidential aspirant has made his money, what causes he has supported, and what sort of finagling he has done, if any, to avoid or diminish his tax burden.
Romney's obligation to disclose his financial history is a matter of public trust and candor. It also represents a sense of duty and responsibility to the precedents for full disclosure set by prior presidents dating back to 1968. Presidents Obama, George W. Bush and their predecessors back to Richard Nixon in 1968 have disclosed their tax returns. By withholding his, Romney raises questions, and suspicions, about why he would refuse to do the same.
There is further irony in his resistance. Romney's father disclosed his tax returns when, as governor of Michigan, he ran against Nixon for the presidential nomination. Mitt, the son, should follow that course.
There may be reasons for Mitt Romney's reluctance to match his father's record. He obviously wants to avoid revealing the dimensions of his wealth -- frequently estimated to be around or above $250 million -- because his income as a venture capitalist may reveal unwanted information about the companies he bought at Bain Capital, reorganized and sold, and the fate of their employees.
Similarly, his huge gifts to the Mormon Church -- millions through his tithing, and other millions for the church through his family foundation -- might bring more critical attention from the GOP's evangelical wing, which is already wary of a religion and church they disavow.
In the more general public realm, the tax policies that he is supporting in his campaign clearly would entrench the low tax advantage that applies to his unusual wealth, yet raise taxes on ordinary wage earners.
His support for making permanent the high-end Bush tax cuts would give people earning more than a million dollars in annual income an average tax cut of $295,874, according to an widely accepted analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. By contrast, he advocates terminating some Obama tax cuts for the middle class, which would raise taxes on people earning less than $40,000 a year.
Romney, to be sure, may be so removed from mainstream America by his wealth that such yawning discrepancies between the burden of taxes for average Americans and ultra-wealthy do not move him. As a venture capitalist, his annual income may not approach that of Wall Street's top hedge fund managers: the top 25 made a total of $22 billion last year, an average of $800 million each annually, according to a report by "Absolute Return + Alpha," the magazine that keeps up with that privileged crowd. Regardless, his tax policies would continue their advantage, and his, while increasing the tax burden of most other Americans.
By revealing his tax returns, he would provide American voters more practical information about the walk he walks. Obviously, that scares Romney, but it's information voters deserve to know.