Phil Mickelson Earned His Money and Should Retract His Apology About Taxes

Phil Mickelson Earned His Money and Should Retract His Apology About Taxes
January 22, 2013

Jim Lakely

Jim Lakely is director of communications at The Heartland Institute, co-director of Heartland’s... (read full bio)

Phil Mickelson, the affable "aw shucks" fan-favorite on the PGA Tour and one of the game's greatest golfers, really stepped in it this week. He ticked off liberals by hitting it Dead Solid Perfect in a few off-hand comments about his dissatisfaction with current income tax policy.

Poor Phil. He's known as "lefty" ... but he's not that kind of lefty. He was too naïve to know that such talk is only permitted by the real pros — the tax-hiking, redistributive masters of our modern economy. He didn't realize that his job in today's American Culture is to sit there and take it. In silence.

Phil, you see, is among the hated "1 percent" — a segment of our society it is now 100 percent OK to despise. Even our president said so all through the 2012 campaign. And in today's culture, that means Phil may not, under any circumstances, merely state a heretofore non-controversial economic fact: The punitive income tax rates in California and the United States — which combined claim first dibs on nearly two-thirds of Phil's earnings — may affect his life decisions. That is the hectoring, bullying point of this piece at Forbes by Len Burman, a professor at Syracuse University.

Sir, you get paid astonishing amounts of money for playing golf — directly through the purses you win at tournaments and indirectly through all the endorsement deals that come with golf success. According to Forbes, you are the seventh highest paid athlete in the world, with $4.8 million in salary and winnings and $43 million in endorsements?

Do you have any idea how lucky you are?

Please stop whining and give thanks for being able to earn a fabulous living playing a game and selling golf clubs (even after tax). 99.999% of people would never have that option, no matter how hard they worked on their swing.

Let's get a few things straight here for Mr. Burman. Phil Mickelson is not merely "lucky." He is supremely talented, and he earns every dollar that flows into his bank account. Unlike most other professional sports, there are no freeloaders in golf. There are no guaranteed contracts.

To put in terms Burman might understand, there is no tenure. A professional golfer starts every year of competition on the course at zero dollars, and he only earns prize money by beating the best golfers in the world week-in and week-out. Come to think of it, golf (and tennis) are the two most Randian, libertarian of sports.

What's that you say? Mickelson makes millions every year in endorsements? He didn't build that? Yes, he did. As John Houseman would say, Phil earned it by being one of the best golfers in history. When you've reached that status after a lifetime of work, a cavalcade of endorsements — from Callaway golf clubs, to Exxon (gasp!), to pharmaceuticals — tend to come your way. And it's not "whining" to want to keep, say, half of what you've earned. To my mind, that's already way to much to give to government, no matter what your salary.

So what did Phil say that got the left in such a tizzy? This, which the Associated Press called  "cryptic" and "polarizing":

Mickelson first made a cryptic reference to "what's gone on the last few months politically" during a conference call two weeks ago for the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where he won last year for his 40th career PGA Tour title. After his final round Sunday at the Humana Challenge, he was asked what he meant.

"There are going to be some drastic changes for me because I happen to be in that zone that has been targeted both federally and by the state, and it doesn't work for me right now," he said. "So I'm going to have to make some changes."

Yeah. That's all. How sad. It is now considered "cryptic" by America's largest news wire for Phil to question "what's gone on the last few months politically" and merely suggest he's not happy about it. That expression of free speech — which would be fine if it was communicated in, say, 2010 in reaction to the rise of the Tea Party — gave the left such a case of the vapors that Phil felt he had to immediately apologize:

"Finances and taxes are a personal matter, and I should not have made my opinions on them public," Mickelson said in a statement released Monday night. "I apologize to those I have upset or insulted, and assure you I intend not to let it happen again."

Heaven forbid! What have we come to when it is considered an insult for a public figure to declare punitive tax rates have him thinking of making "some changes" in where he might live?

I've been a big golf fan all my life, but over the years I've never really taken to Phil. I've been more of a Tiger Woods guy — and, despite his troubles, I still root for him. The game is more exciting when Tiger's in contention on Sundays, especially in majors. But in an American society that loves "comebacks" — even from some pretty bad stuff (just ask NFL icon and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, playing in this year's Super Bowl) — Tiger can't truly come back until he plays well and wins another major. He has to earn it on the course before he earns it in society. And Tiger doesn't doesn't have any teammates to get him to the promised land. He has only himself. If he has a bad week, he loses. Just like Phil ... who is my new favorite golfer thanks to his accidental moment of candor about his personal economics.

The idea that Phil Mickelson has something for which to apologize — that he caused offense to his fans — is ridiculous and disheartening. The leftist, Keynesian theory of economics wrongly supposes that tax policy doesn't affect the personal decisions of free citizens in the United States. Just raise the tax rates as high as you want, and all that money will flow into the government. But the real world doesn't work that way. Just ask Gérard Depardieu.

Mickelson's statement — which he has taken back, for now — is proof that there is an "effective upper limit" on income taxes. For Phil, it's the prospect of giving 63 percent of his earnings to the government. There's a reason why most American pro golfers (and many Europeans and Australians on the American Tour) take up residence in Florida or Texas, and it's not just for the good golfing weather. Neither state has a state income tax, so those pro golfers keep more of what they earn.

For more good reading on this subject, see Brian Domitrovic at Forbes, Daniel J. Mitchell at the Cato@Liberty blog, Jim Pethokoukis at AEI, and the Investor's Business Daily editorial page. They help explain the inviolable Laffer Curve of the real world.

Jim Lakely

Jim Lakely is director of communications at The Heartland Institute, co-director of Heartland’s... (read full bio)