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Phil Mickelson should feel free to speak his mind

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
January 29, 2013 -- Updated 1113 GMT (1913 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Phil Mickelson apologized for comments criticizing tax rates he has to pay
  • Ruben Navarrette: Mickelson is entitled to his views, why apologize?
  • He says people need to be more willing to hear alternate points of view

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

San Diego (CNN) -- Phil Mickelson has apologized, which is the right thing to do when you do something wrong. Yet I can't accept his apology, since I still haven't figured out what the champion golfer did that was so wrong.

Let me tee up this story. My fellow San Diego-area resident has been thinking a lot about taxes. And he's done some of his thinking out loud.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Two weeks ago, during a conference call with reporters, the golfer made a passing reference to being concerned about "what's gone on the last few months politically."

Last week, another reporter asked Mickelson to elaborate and he said: "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. So I'm going to have to make some changes."

It seems that the California native is thinking about leaving the Golden State and heading somewhere more welcoming to high-income earners. That's it: Mickelson hinted that he might move his family to another state. And he got hammered for it. What does he think this is -- a free country?

Phil Mickelson takes a tax mulligan

The golfer claims that he pays about 60% of his income in combined local, state, and federal taxes.

That figure seems impossibly high at first. But -- as an article in CNN Money pointed out -- with a new federal tax rate of 39.6% on income over $450,000, and a top state tax rate in California of 12.3% on income above $1 million, and a 1% state surcharge for mental health on income above $1 million, and a 3.8% state surcharge for Medicare on earnings above $250,000, Mickelson's tax bill adds up in a hurry.

The article estimates that Mickelson's tax rate is closer to 53%.

But the golfer was talking about taxes in the broadest possible sense. You should also factor in the Social Security taxes shouldered by the self-employed, the property taxes he pays to San Diego County for his home in the ritzy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, where homes can cost $15 million, and any municipal taxes he pays to City Hall.

In 2012, Mickelson earned about $60 million, most of it from product endorsements. Let's say that he earns the same amount in 2013, and assume that he pays at least 50% of his income in taxes.

That would mean Lefty's tax bill for next year would ring up at about $30 million. That would leave him about $30 million after taxes.

Whatever the exact amount of taxes that Mickelson is paying, it's hard to feel sorry for someone with those sorts of earnings when the rest of us would love to have those problems.

The backlash was significant enough for Mickelson -- no doubt at the urging of his fleet of lawyers, accountants, managers, agents and public relations specialists -- to call for a mulligan. He issued a mea culpa just one day later.

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

I hate that he apologized.

I suppose that part of it has to do with my job description. As an opinion writer, I upset people all the time. I've been known to offend more people before breakfast than some people do all day.

But since when did Americans have the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness -- and the right to never be offended by something that someone else says?

Which brings us to what this story is really about. It's not about taxes that are so high that bank robbers should ask the tax collector for lessons, or politicians who try to pay for runaway spending meant to ingratiate them with constituents by "soaking the rich," or how the wealthy have no right to complain about paying taxes. All this is a sideshow.

The story of how "Lefty" wound up in a rhetorical sand trap is all about freedom of expression. It's about freedom of speech. It's about freedom -- period.

How ironic that this story broke the same week that President Obama, in his second inaugural address, talked about how "while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on Earth" and how, as Americans, "our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom" and how we should "answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom."

Where did Mickelson's freedom go?

The story of the golfer and his taxes is, first and foremost, about being free to have your say even when it -- oh dear! -- offends someone. Or, in this case, when it's politically inconvenient for the tax-and-spend crowd to hear.

To their ears, this kind of talk is subversive. If the "super wealthy" complain about paying taxes, before you know it, the "wealthy" will decide their taxes are too high as well. Then it'll spread to the merely "well-to-do." That's why these outbursts have to be nipped in the bud.

In the end, this story is less about what Mickelson pays in taxes than the price the entire country is paying for our oversensitivity whenever someone says something controversial. It's about where we have arrived in this country -- where we've convinced ourselves that we're entitled to go through life never having to confront an opinion on any subject that is different from the ones we hold.

A couple of years ago, I heard from a reader who said: "You know, I used to agree with much of what you wrote, and I looked forward to reading your column. But lately, we just disagree too much, so I'm going to stop reading."

That's one way to go. We can all follow suit and surround ourselves only with opinions we agree with. But let's not kid ourselves. Wherever that road leads, it isn't to a better and more enlightened society.

Phil Mickelson doesn't owe us an apology. We owe him one.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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