There’s been a lot of snide coverage about how very rich Mitt Romney is. Tuesday afternoon Slate’s Dan Check posted a calculator where you can calculate just how long it would take Mitt Romney to earn your 2010 income (for our household, it’s about two days). Posted under the title “Mitt’s Income vs. Your Income,” the Slate calculator is supposed to give readers a metric for just how much richer Mitt is than they are—and how can someone so much richer than you be in touch with your concerns?
But, really. Everyone knows that there are extremely rich people in America. Americans are worried about the stagnation of middle class incomes and the decreased class mobility in America. It is a tragedy that one-sixth of Americans who want full-time work are either unemployed or working part-time and that some people who lost their jobs during the financial crisis will never rejoin the workforce. It’s hard to stomach the high salaries still earned on Wall Street. These are very troubling structural issues in the American economy.
But no individual person is responsible for these problems. Not Mitt Romney, and not any other particular rich person. Enjoying a smug moment by calculating how little time it would take Mitt Romney to earn your income isn’t germane to a conversation about how these structural issues can be addressed.
And, some context, please: twenty-six professional athletes earned more than Mitt Romney in 2010. Tiger Woods made the most of any athlete, at just over $90 million dollars, including $70 million from endorsements: this, the year immediately after news of his multiple infidelities broke. Isn’t it outrageous that an athlete could behave so disgracefully and earn more than triple Mitt Romney’s income through selling his name and image?
A lot of the press coverage since the release of the Romneys’ tax returns has focused on the fact that he and his wife, Ann, paid just under 14 percent of their income in taxes, a lower rate than many middle class Americans will pay (although still higher than 80 percent of Americans). The Romneys’ tax rate is largely determined by the fact that their income is mostly investment income, which is taxed at a lower rate than employment income. But that’s not the only determinant of their relatively low tax rate. The Romneys gave one-sixth of their income to charities, including their tithe to the Mormon Church. Giving away one-sixth of your income lets you take a really big tax deduction and markedly lower your tax rate. (Did any of the super rich athletes who earned more than the Romneys give away one-sixth of their incomes to charity?)
The Romneys' very generous giving has received very little press attention and even negative attention. The New York Times story “For Romneys, Friendly Tax Code Reduces Liabilities” mentions that the Obamas faced double the tax rate of the Romneys in 2010 and that the Romney’s tax liabilities would be further reduced under candidate Romney’s tax proposals before mentioning the Romneys’ charitable giving, and the story does not report that the Romneys’ charitable giving reduced their tax rate nor convey the full scope of the Romneys’ giving. Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday asked a surprised Mitt Romney if Romney’s tithing to his church could be seen as a negative factor for voters. Shouldn’t it be a positive for a candidate to have given so much to charitable causes?
The reaction to the release of the Romneys’ tax returns makes Mitt Romney’s hesitation to do so understandable. The important conversation for the public is not how rich this one man is but how to lift America’s economy so we can all feel a little richer again.