DEATH, TAXES, AND CLASS WARFARE

Phil Mickelson is a professional golfer, a very good one.  Indeed, he is the second-best golfer of the Tiger Woods era, one of the best golfers in the history of the sport.  He is successful, rich, and famous by almost any standard, and a decent-looking man (though neither as handsome nor as trim as when he won his first pro event) with a lovely wife and three bubbly little daughters.  He is very smart (though his intelligence and quirky humor are off-putting to many of his fellow-competitors), and he is quite popular with golf galleries and fans because he loves to attempt risky and difficult shots and clearly plays to win – rather than going for the steady paychecks through consistent, conservative strategies.  Phil has it all.

On the other hand, Phil appears to know how good he has it, and to deeply appreciate it.  He was not born rich and he has not inherited or been given money; he has earned every nickel through his own efforts.  He may have grown up the golden boy, but he has some scars:  his mother and his wife are cancer victims, though each has survived and now appears to be doing well; he has psoriatic arthritis, a particularly difficult and painful condition with very serious potential long-term consequences.  Just as Jack Nicklaus toiled for years in the shadow of the popular Arnold Palmer, Mickelson has played second-fiddle to Tiger for most of their nearly-parallel careers.  While his charitable activities (like his accomplishments in golf) are somewhat less publicized and chronicled than Tiger’s, Phil appears, by all accounts, to be an extraordinarily charitable man.  In his post-round interviews, Phil is among the least likely to give the tour golfer’s typically egocentric, immodest responses, like, “Well, I was really terrific out there today.”  All things considered, Phil is one of the good guys.

So, what are we to make of Phil’s recent decision (one that he clearly regrets) to go public with his reactions to the recent changes in California’s tax laws?  Is Phil a lesser man than, say, Warren Buffett, who buys peace with the class-warfare crowd by publicly endorsing increases in the income- and estate- tax rates on people whose incomes and estates are less than 1% of his own, while privately taking such full advantages of high-priced legal and accounting advice that he pays income tax at a rate of a mere 11% of his adjusted gross income and his estate is likely to pay little or no estate tax when he dies?  Is he a lesser man than class-warfare icon Al Gore, who has made himself a near-billionaire by accepting huge interests in government-favored businesses in exchange for providing access to influential political figures, and by selling his money-losing TV network to Al Jazeera?  What, exactly, is the case against Phil for stating, in essence, that it is pretty ridiculous – not to say unfair to both his family and the beneficiaries of his charity – for him to continue to contribute 13.5% of his annual income to support the state and local governments of California in order to indulge himself in the privilege of continuing to make his home in the Golden State, when he could live in several other perfectly nice places without having to pay any such taxes?  Is California really THAT great?

Phil may be among the few who are willing to tell the truth, publicly, about this matter, but he is hardly the only one to have figured it out and acted upon it.  Check out Tiger Woods’s post-Phil statement that California taxes are what drove him out of California.  Check out all the technology-based corporations that decided at some point to turn their backs on their California roots.  People may not be as willing as Phil to tell the truth in public, but people, in general, are not stupid.  Yes, it may come across to some as arrogant or heartless or insensitive that a man making $50 million dollars or so per year should be complaining about paying too much in taxes, when nearly 20% of the employable people in this country (not the phony 8% that you read about) are out of work or cannot find a job in the area of their skills, and Phil has clearly indicated that he knows he has given that impression and he regrets having offended those people.  He also knows that there are a great many people who quite reasonably wish that high-profile athletes and entertainers would just shut up and hit the ball, or sing, and keep their personal affairs and opinions to themselves, and I suspect that is what he will do in the future.

But Phil also knows that he told the truth, and that his position is not at all unreasonable, because his primary duty is to his family and his secondary duty is to the objects of his charitable contributions and activities.  His loyalty is to his country, but certainly not to any particular state.  I am certain that Phil does not consider it his social or moral or religious duty to continue to maintain a California residency so that he can continue to contribute millions and millions of dollars each year to the maintenance and support of the other residents of California.  And yet, to read the comments of his critics, both sports writers and general journalists, you would think that Phil’s sin was not that he spoke the truth one dare not utter, but that he just plain doesn’t get it – that Phil doesn’t understand that in contemporary America (at least for the next 4 years), the primary duty of successful people is not to do things that provide entertainment, jobs, and economic growth for the country, it is to support the less-fortunate by paying taxes.  And the amount they should pay is, in the words of more than one of our sports writers, their “fair share” in taxes – as though there were some particular number that could be readily identified as the “fair” amount.

Apparently, 10% as a California state income tax is not “fair,” but 13.5% is “fair.”  These critics must be really wise; don’t you wonder where they got their numbers?

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