Romney and the two-soprano rule

We can’t know whether Romney is being stupid about not releasing his tax returns until we know what’s in the returns.

Francis Bator taught me many valuable things in grad school, along with one priceless principle: the two-soprano rule.

As the judge in a singing contest,
never award the prize to the second soprano
having heard only the first.

Patrick Appel thinks Romney’s continued concealment of his tax returns is “a sign of stupidity.” Of course that’s possible, but Romney is by no means a stupid man in any ordinary sense of that term; one of his B-school classmates described him to me (privately, and without any affection for Romney) as “the smartest guy in the class.” Harvard B-School in 1970 wasn’t exactly the Institute for Advanced Study, but I’d be stunned if Romney had a measured IQ much below 145 135.

Yes, not releasing the tax returns has exposed Romney to endless heckling, and will continue to do so through November. (And Romney hasn’t helped himself by keeping the issue alive; if he’s standing mute, he should stand mute.)

But it would be reckless to jump to the conclusion that Romney is making a stupid mistake. The alternative possibility is that Romney and his handlers took a look at what was actually on the tax returns, pondered the natural follow-up questions, and decided that it was better for Romney to remain silent and be thought a scoundrel than to open his mouth and remove all doubt.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

23 thoughts on “Romney and the two-soprano rule”

  1. I spend less time in the blogosphere than many, but my read of the blog-ventional wisdom is exactly yours: it must be the case that in Romney’s view, not releasing is by far the lesser of two evils.

  2. Yes. He knows he’ll take a hit for stonewalling, but figures the hit would be bigger if he released them.

    Given that his 2010 return shows him paying 13.9% – quite low (but expected, since capital gains is taxed at 15%) – one does wonder what’s in some of those other returns. He now claims he consistently paid 13% or so, so it’s probably not the rate but rather what was done to drop the taxable income number (again, which I think everyone expected).

  3. And if we incorporate Rob’s observation into Prof. Kleiman’s theory, we find that whatever is in those returns must be worse than:

    1 – admitting a tax rate of 13% in at least one year and
    2 – still taking all the flack for not releasing his returns.

    My guess is he took the Swiss bank account amnesty.

    I wonder if that’s what the Obama campaign has in mind when it signals its willingness to accept five years of returns.

    1. Swiss bank account amnesty is certainly the smart money bet. That’s just about game, set and match and something that might see him forced out of the nomination if it comes out before the convention.

      The more interesting possibility that I’ve heard bandied about is that he hasn’t been giving his full tithe to the church. That’s something that most people couldn’t care less about but could screw with his base in a nasty way.

      1. Keeping in mind that whatever it is has to be worse than what he’s currently facing, I’m not really impressed with the tithe theory. Assuming he donated some reasonably substantial amount of money, I think that would be quickly forgotten.

        1. Maybe. I’m as certain as I can be that Romney has made substantial contributions to the LDS church all of his adult life. But I’m not sure that chiseling on his tithe would be forgiven quickly. The LDS hierarchy views the tithe as a crucial component of life in the church. (For example, being current in tithing is a part of getting a temple recommendation.)

          I tend to think that it’s the UBS amnesty rather than a church problem, but I believe that because the Obama campaign appears to believe it.

    2. The other things about the Obama five-year proposal:
      1) Romney has been running for President full-time since 2007, the time encompassed by Obama’s proposal (this is in the letter from the Obama campaign).
      2) In 2008 Obama released six years of returns iirc; he’s released ten years now because he’s been President for almost four years. So he is setting a standard for Romney slightly lower than the one he set for himself in Romney’s position, rather than demanding Romney match him year for year in 2012 or demanding Romney match his own father’s standards.

      I think it’s not really clear whether the Obama campaign thinks there’s a huge discovery in those five years (the Swiss Bank amnesty, for example), or if this was just a ploy to make an extremely fair request and extract a rejection.

      1. I don’t think there’s any public perception that asking for 10 years is unfair. If Romney had released five, and the Obama campaign insisted on ten, maybe the public would lose interest, but there’s nothing wrong with asking.

        I actually think it’s a bit presumptuous for Obama to be bargaining on this. It’s not up to him to determine how many years of returns the public wants to see.

        1. I think it’s a bit presumptuous for you to presume Obama is speaking for the public. All he said was if you release five years of returns we’ll back off. If someone else wants to scream for the next 5 years they’re more than welcome to.

  4. I’m wondering what we aren’t looking at, while we’re so enthralled by the missing tax returns. Olympic spending? Pre-Bain shenanigans? A love child?

    His handlers have a very good reason for keeping us focused. i wish I knew what it was.

  5. Mark Romney isn’t stupid and you do well to argue that he is smart. But 3 standard deviations to the right? In the genius range? Please. Not even Einstein, they say, was that far from the mean. Romney probably lies between 120 and 130. He was a heartless efficiency expert and a tax code wonk. And little more…

    1. I’ve moved him down 10 points. (My memory about the Z-distribution was rusty.) 135 is about 2.3 sigma above the mean, roughly the cut-off for the top percentile of the whole population. The population of RBC commenters has a different distribution.

    2. I think it is sufficient to say that he is easily smart enough to be president. And I think it is important to say that a certain degree of smarts is necessary but not sufficient for the job. He seems to fall short on other key factors: empathy, imagination, and a certain kind of cunning integrity that is peculiar to good politicians.

  6. IANATA, but I’d say the one revelation we have from the return he’s released which most seems to flunk the smell test, and which most demands further information, is how he managed to create an IRA worth over a hundred million.

  7. Romney has been far from silent on the issue of his tax returns. His “campaign” has kept the issue alive through constant whining that every sentient being in the known universe has heard.

    Romney is a moron.

    If his I.Q. is anywhere near 145 then I’m Darth Vader and Mark Kleiman is Kermit the Frog’s lesser known twin, Hermit.

    1. There are a lot of brilliant morons in the world. Romney is, I think, one of them. His IQ may be top notch, but that doesn’t mean that he has a shred of political instinct. He’s smart, but not cunning.

      1. I think he is personally untested.

        Rich kids who sort of sail through life can be that way. They are not used to being challenged by either people or events, and don’t quite know how to respond other than by continuing to express entitlement.

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