The Olympic Medal Tax Pander

You could see this coming the moment Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform put out its press release on the tax liability of U.S. Olympics athletes who win medals and the honoraria that go along with them: Sen. Marco Rubio has introduced a bill creating a brand new tax loophole for the stars who are dominating our TV screens this week. The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf explains why this is an idea that is fully as stupid as it sounds:

[T]his is a perfect example of why the tax code is a complicated and burdensome mess. Guys like Senator Rubio stumble upon a category of earning that they regard as being “different,” whether because there are campaign contributions in it for them, or because it advances a larger ideological agenda or, as in this case, because the category of people being taxed are popular. This particular loophole accords with a widespread intuition that the prize money and medals from an Olympic victory are unlike “regular income” that is subject to routine taxes….

But these are bad reasons to create a special exemption. The fact is that prize money from athletic victories is income, and there is no good reason for the government to treat that income differently than the income of all the non-Olympic athletes who earn analogous types of income. Why should Olympic athletes be exempted from paying taxes on their prize money, but not professional golfers, or poker players, or winners of literary prizes, or folks who win the lottery?

It’s a largely unanswerable objection, and Rubio won’t even try, because this is strictly about somebody at ATR getting a clever idea about how to politically exploit the Olympics while reinforcing the idea that taxes are the result of evil liberal hatred of “success.” Why not just exempt the Fab Five from all taxes for life? Why not exempt all successful, hard-working people from taxes? That, folks, is pretty much the whole sum and substance of the GOP’s economic agenda.

Now if you somehow fail to immediately identify the plight of Gabby Douglas with that of some Wall Street shark or Trust Fund Baby, then you might be halfway along the trail that leads from bemusement at this sort of effort to hijack a nationally unifying sports event to outright anger. I’m already there.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.