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Romney's rationale for his hidden tax returns

Mitt Romney released his 2010 tax returns, and says he'll eventually disclose his 2011, at which point we're simply out of luck. At least for now, he refuses to even consider making additional information available.

George Will said over the weekend, "The cost of not releasing the returns are clear. Therefore, [Romney] must have calculated that there are higher costs in releasing them." That's true, but it's also obvious -- of course he knows he's taking a hit, so he clearly believes this embarrassment is less severe than the embarrassment that would come with disclosure.

The next question, then, is why Romney refuses to do what even his allies have urged him to do. There are competing explanations, and CNN's Erin Burnett noted some of them in a segment last night, concluding with the possibility that the Republican presidential candidate might be, as she put it, "stupid."

Clearly, answering the question is speculative for those of us outside Romney's inner circle, but I think there are probably five main possibilities to explain this strange secrecy.

1. Romney may not have paid any taxes. As Kevin Drum suggested yesterday, "[T]here are probably multiple years in which Romney paid no taxes at all. This would very definitively be a Bad Thing, so he really doesn't have any choice but to take the heat instead." This would also apply if he paid almost nothing in taxes, thanks to various tax-avoidance schemes.

2. Romney may have made even more money from Bain. Before his "retroactive" retirement, Romney made "more than $100,000" a year from his firm for, according to him, doing absolutely no work whatsoever. But as Michael Tomasky noted, we don't know how much more than $100,000 he made in compensation. If it's significantly more, that could be awfully embarrassing.

3. Romney may have had to pay fines. If he tried to skirt American tax laws in the past and got caught, the returns might show penalties, fines, and/or back tax payments.

4. Romney may have additional offshore investments. We know about the shell corporation in Bermuda, the cash in the Caymans, and the Swiss bank account because of the one year's worth of returns. If Romney considered himself an International Man of Mystery for a long while, there may be other foreign holdings he'd prefer to conceal.

5. Romney may have taken some problematic deductions. Did he give money to controversial charities? Did he take deductions on his family's fancy horses? Something else?

Of course, it's worth noting that these aren't mutually exclusive -- the returns, if we ever see them, may include some combination of these concerns, or perhaps even all of them.