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It’s really shocking to me that one little video posted on YouTube could turn the world upside down. There’s no end to the volume of stupid, offensive stuff posted online to be viewed by those with too much time on their hands. But one video that gained wide circulation this week led to riots and mayhem.

After the Mitt Romney fund-raiser video went viral, with a little help from Mother Jones magazine, the Republicans are ready to burn buildings. They never really liked Romney to begin with and got stuck with him as the only rational person in a field of candidates that, at times, was led by Michelle Bachman, Rick Santorum, and even Donald Trump. Against that lot, Mitt looked golden.

But now the Republicans are openly regretting their choice. The misgivings are hardly new, but after the video went public, nobody is even trying to be polite about expressing their doubts. David Brooks compared him to Thurston Howell III (the millionaire on "Gilligan’s Island"). Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s old speechwriter, is demanding an "intervention" to try to reform the candidate before it’s too late. Bill Kristol has said Romney should step aside.

You really need to see the video, or big chunks of it, to appreciate the response. It’s worthy of Stephen Colbert. The gist of it was Romney’s assertion that 47 percent of Americans are incapable of taking personal responsibility for their lives, and believe that they are victims and entitled to government support. They think they are entitled to food. As proof of their indolence, they don’t pay federal income taxes.

The context appears to have been Mitt attempting to explain that there is a large block of voters who simply are not going to be receptive to his message (whatever that is) and that, as a candidate, he should not waste time trying to win them over. That’s probably a valid point. But the vehement contempt he displayed for 47 percent of the American people was stunning.

It is true that 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax. Most of them do pay FICA for Social Security and Medicare, and local sales and possibly property taxes. Some are children or old people with no incomes to tax. But the federal tax code is veritable Christmas tree of exemptions and deductions. Mitt said he pays what he owes, and not a penny more, taking full advantage of every exemption and deduction he can.

Not surprisingly, people of average means do the same thing. With personal exemptions for children, deductions for child care, the earned-income tax credit for low-wage families, home mortgage interest deductions, etc., there are a whole lot of things deliberately built into the tax code that lower the tax rate.

Median household income in the U.S. is about $50,000. Given the exemptions and deductions in the tax code, it’s easy to see how people making less than that could end up with little or no tax liability. That may not be good policy, but it’s not surprising. It’s the law. Just like Romney paying only 15 percent on dividend income.

Romney’s freeloading 47 percent includes a lot of working families with children, retirees who are on Social Security, active-duty military personnel who don’t have to pay taxes while getting shot at, students with part time jobs, lazy unemployed kindergarteners, and so on. And, yes, it includes some people who are lazy and spend their time gaming the system to see how long they can receive one kind of government benefit or another to avoid getting a job. Those people are out there, for sure, but they are not half of the American public.

We need an honest discussion about taxation and who pays how much. It’s complicated stuff, and in the end we all need to be paying a little more and receiving a little less. But for Romney to have dismissed nearly half of the American people as irresponsible freeloaders is stunning. He didn’t back down from the comments, either. He said he expressed his position inelegantly. I suspect that his comments reflect the Republican orthodoxy, and much of the party’s anger is that he spoke out loud what is only to be whispered in the inner sanctum of the boardroom or country club.

While some Republicans are openly calling for him to step aside and let Paul Ryan take over, it’s possible that Romney has blundered onto common ground, and found the one point where this divided country can be united. The one thing Americans seem to have in common, rich or poor, is using the system to avoid paying income taxes. Whether it’s hiding money in the Caymans, the mortgage-interest deduction, personal exemptions for a pile of kids, or a dozen other things, we all take full advantage of the holes in that block of Swiss cheese we call the tax code.

Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.


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