Back to Basics # 39
Opening Disclaimer: I am now and have long been a life member of The American Civil Liberties Union. On at least two occasions and possibly up to four, I have sworn to "preserve, protect[,] and defend the Constitution of the United States," including the Bill of Rights, and definitely including the right of Americans to "be secure in" our "persons, houses, papers, and effects" against "unreasonable searches" by government agencies, and, I'll add, the prying eyes of non-state institutions and our overly inquisitive fellow citizens. I am, indeed, an old fart who still believes that a crucial right is "the right to be left alone," the right to have our privacy respected. So if Mitt Romney declines to release his income tax returns, I will defend his right to do so. Not to the death, perhaps — well, undoubtedly not to my death — but, anyway, at least to the point of inconvenience.
On the other hand, such disclosure would be useful ….
When I was growing up, people would say, "You can't quantify values." That's wrong. You can quantify values — roughly — and people do quantify values every time they draw up a budget, especially if it's a political budget, such as the one for the Federal Government of the United States.
How much does America value our young people and their welfare? Check out the trends over the last couple of decades of expenditures for education and children's health vs., say, for a highly relevant example, what's spent on the maintenance and care of old people.
When I went to college, I paid $300 a year — or perhaps it was per semester; I don't want to exaggerated the point — I paid basically a service charge for my education. The good and sovereign People of the State of Illinois paid for my college education. As it happens, they got it back, with interest, when I taught for several years as a University of Illinois Teaching Assistant and "Merit Instructor": i.e., working hard for low pay. Still, the taxpayers couldn't have known that would happen, and few University of Illinois graduates paid back the State so directly; the taxpayers of Illinois generously subsidized our educations, and, at least for those willing to put in some effort, good educations they were.
Nowadays college students have to fight to get loans at reasonable interest rates and fairly often get ripped off and end up with debt, no degree, little education, and not even much useful training.
Tax returns are nowhere near as instructive as budgets, but they can point toward interesting questions.
Mitt Romney is rich, sophisticated, and politically ambitious; he was vetted for Vice President in 2008. It is safe to assume that at no time in his career did Mr. Romney intentionally do anything illegal. But Mr. Romney is rich and has devoted some effort to getting richer, so it is also safe to assume that he has avoided — that's avoided not "evaded" — as much in taxes as he can.
The interesting questions have to do with what someone of Mr. Romney's wealth can do legally within the system and how the laws setting up "The System" got to be what they are.
Personally, I'd also like to know if Mr. Romney tithed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I had a colleague who had worked in Utah, and he passed along to me what he said was a common theory among his non-Mormon colleagues in Utah as to why public expenditures on education were so low there and possibly public services generally. Their impression was that a good many Mormons tithed to the Church or at least contributed heavily; and the LDS Church was quite good in providing services for its members and others they thought they could help.
Providing community service is a fine thing, always potentially better than government services insofar as community services are usually more, well, community-based and closer to the people served. On the other hand, if people are already contributing a hefty amount to the Church to fund services, they can well find it sensible to be more parsimonious whenever possible in funding services paid for by taxes.
It's similar to what one would expect with people paying for private schooling for their kids. They are strongly dedicated to education —the strength of that dedication can be quantified by what they're spending on it; but they might be reluctant to put more money into education if it's tax money to educate other people's children.
If your group is providing services that you are paying for with open hands, you might be a little tightfisted with money going to the government to pay for strangers.
These are topics of interest, especially, I would hope, for that small but crucial demographic wedge of Americans who haven't decided how they'll vote for President in 2012 (or if they'll bother to vote).
Values can be quantified, to some extent, and numbers can reveal them. So let's have a values election in 2012, starting with numbers on budget proposals and tax returns.