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Rubio's Silly Idea: A Special Tax Break for Olympians

David Callahan

Last night, when U.S. swimmer Nathan Adrian, won the 100-meter Olympic freestyle by a fraction of a second, I reflected on just how valuable that sliver of advantage would be to Adrian. As an Olympic gold medalist, he'll make big money from endorsements and public appearances -- the kind of money that mere silver medalists don't get paid. America likes winners, after all, not also-rans.

What I didn't think was that Nathan Adrian needs a tax break. But a tax break for Olympic medalists is exactly what Senator Marco Rubio is proposing in Washington.

Olympians who win medals also get cash payments: $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. Rubio wants to carve out an exception in the federal tax code to ensure that medal winners don't have to pay taxes on this income. America's winners, metaphorically speaking, already gets loads of tax breaks. Now Rubio wants tax breaks for those who are literally winners.

Bizarrely, Rubio cites too much complexity in the tax code as rationale for his new specialized break.

Our tax code is a complicated and burdensome mess that too often punishes success, and the tax imposed on Olympic medal winners is a classic example of this madness. Athletes representing our nation overseas in the Olympics shouldn't have to worry about an extra tax bill waiting for them back home.

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Huh? There is nothing "messy" about paying taxes on Olympic honorarium money and this tab isn't an "extra tax bill" -- it's just more income to add to a Schedule C form.

In any case, Rubio's logic is amusingly ironic: How does creating a hyper-narrow tax break, aimed at the most rarefied of income (from Olympic medals!), make the tax code less complicated? It doesn't. On the contrary, it makes the code more complicated by creating yet another exception that will have to be explained by IRS rules and accommodated in revised tax return forms.

Rubio managed to zing President Obama is making this silly proposal, tweeting that "Olympic champs shouldn't have tax on medals. Unless@barackobama believes they didn't earn them, someone else did that."

Perhaps it's best to let Mitt Romney reply to that point. Speaking at the opening of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney said:

You Olympians, however, know you didn’t get here solely on your own power. For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers, encouraged your hopes, coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them. We’ve already cheered the Olympians, let’s also cheer the parents, coaches, and communities.

Romney had it right: We all succeed with the support of society, not solely because of our own efforts. Rubio's Olympic tax break proposal is channeling the libertarian idea that taxes are inherently an affront to successful people, who shouldn't own anything to anyone.

The illogic of the proposal, which would complicate the tax code in the name of tax reform, is yet another example of how advancing a radical anti-tax agenda has become more important than any kind of consistency.

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