It's an easy choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on tax

Compared to Romney, Obama is downright folksy.

President Barack Obama isn't a populist but he plays one on the campaign trail. Like many liberal Democrats, he plays up the down-home rhetoric for votes, but by nature he's a progressive technocrat immanently comfortable trusting the authority of experts. This comes from being the son of an anthropologist and former editor of the Harvard Law Review. This is why he sounded so wooden when attempting to rail against "fat cat bankers," and why he needs Vice President Joe Biden, a natural-born class warrior.

But the president's populist mien stems from more than campaign strategy. It's context, too. Compared to quarter-billionaire Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger in the 2012 presidential election, no-drama Obama appears downright folksy. Sure, working-class Americans don't usually feel kinship with a former constitutional law professor, but that's far better than a guy who owns a dressage champion competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics. It'd be one thing if Romney's horse was a racing steed. Americans understand betting on the ponies. But dressage? First, it sounds kinda French. Second, that means a dancing horse, right?

That's slightly unfair. But Romney isn't helping.

First, he's not being clear about his wealth. He has released only two years of tax returns. This has allowed the Obama campaign to suggest, rightly or wrongly, that he's hiding something. And in fairness, that's a plausible charge given that Romney has cash stashed in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, and the reason you do that is to avoid the prying eyes of the Internal Revenue Service.

Second, the central claim of his candidacy — that he is an experienced businessman who knows how to create jobs — took a major hit last month after a report in the Washington Post found that Bain Capital, Romney's former Wall Street firm, invested in companies that pioneered the trend of outsourcing jobs.

Romney's reaction was twofold and too dumb — he demanded that the newspaper retract the story (it said no) and he said the reporters didn't know the difference between outsourcing and offshoring. Frankly most people don't, and if you're trying to save face by splitting hairs, good luck to you. You're going to need it.

Third, he rebounds poorly. Parsing "outsourcing" and "offshoring" was just the beginning. Last week, the Associated Press revealed that Romney has investments in a company in Bermuda, raising more questions about transparency and indeed how wealthy Romney actually is. Estimates so far put his wealth at as much as $250m, making him the richest man to run for the White House in recent memory (Obama's wealth is as high as $3m).

And again, Romney stumbled badly: "I don’t manage [those investments], I don’t even know where they are," Romney told a radio station in Iowa, a battleground state. "That trustee follows all U.S. laws, all taxes are paid as appropriate, all of them have been reported to the government. There’s nothing hidden there."

This kind of explanation flies with people who have blind trusts, but not with people who don't have trusts or don't know what trusts are, and sure as hell don't know why they are blind. And anyway, Romney could dispel the ambiguity by releasing more returns just as his father, George, did before making a run for the presidency.

Now Obama is hitting hard: "What’s important is if you are running for president is that the American people know who you are and what you’ve done and that you’re an open book," he told a New Hampshire TV station. "And that’s been true of every presidential candidate dating all the way back to Mitt Romney’s father."

My guess is that Romney won't release more tax returns, because he doesn't want to bring more attention to himself. I say this not because I think he's hiding something (though he may be for all I know), but because Romney wants this election to be a referendum on the president's first term not a choice between him and Obama.

The reason for that is Americans tend to give incumbents the benefit of the doubt, but if Romney can raise enough doubt about the economy — and with a stalled economy on the brink of a double-dip recession, there's good reason for this strategy — he can frame the election as a thumbs-up-thumbs-down vote.

Obama, on the other hand, is doing his best to make this a choice between opposing candidate, parties and ideologies. Yesterday, we saw the latest stage of that strategy when he called for Congress to allow the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest two per cent of income earners to expire at the end of the year.

This is good politics for two reasons. One, most Americans approve of such a measure, partly because taxing the rich lowers the national debt and partly because taxing the rich just feels good. The second reason this is good politics: It puts Romney in a box. Obama highlighted the fact that he himself would be paying higher taxes and that he stood ready to do so. Romney, meanwhile, has said letting the tax cuts expire is bad for small business, which may be true. What's certain is that Obama is setting up a choice.

American voters can choose the rich guy willing to pay more in taxes for the good of his country or the rich guy who didn't.

That, to most Americans, is an easy choice.
 

Mitt Romney's tax affairs are being efficiently used against him by Obama. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.