Even Oprah Doesn’t Like to Pay Taxes

Before we get too far from Piers Morgan’s debut interview with Oprah Winfrey, there was an interesting moment that may be indicative of something larger in our political and cultural landscape. At the risk of reading too much into what was clearly meant as a light-hearted comment on her wealth, let’s look at the television mogul’s comments about her net worth.

Morgan raised the topic of her $2.7 billion net worth. “I’m not sitting around counting it,” Winfrey said dismissively. To which Morgan teased, I’ll bet you know exactly how much you’re worth, Oprah. Proud and disarmed, Winfrey confessed that indeed she wasn’t sitting around counting her money because she already had counted it.

To show what a watchful eye she has, the discussion then moved to how she still “signs” all checks over $100,000–and you’d be surprised how many of those she was writing. But, the daytime star confessed, as much as she liked writing six-figure checks for talented employees there was one check she hated to write. That was her taxes. She and her accountants even had an elaborate ceremony to take some of the sting out of the occasion.

This was a relatively innocuous statement. Who likes to pay taxes? And the extremely wealthy seem to dislike it even more the less it impacts their day-to-day living. However, during that same interview Winfrey made it clear that it was her life’s mission to help others improve their own lives. That’s her mission, the source of her worldly success and the core of her brand which she described as ‘love.’ “My brand is love,” she told Morgan and corrected him when he tried to cavil.

In contemporary life, it is hard to find a figure who could better embody the term Liberal. Here is a woman who harks back to her childhood in the “apartheid state” of Mississippi; talks freely about her teenage pregnancy and the ramifications it would have had on the rest of her life; still self-identifies as a school teacher and describes Barack Obama as having made no mistakes during his first two years in office.

Oh, and let’s not forget that she has acknowledged being in a long-term non-traditional emotional relationship. She ticks every box on the Liberal checklist. And even she doesn’t like to pay taxes!

It may seem remote now. But there was a time when the government was viewed as an essential actor in improving lives, that paying taxes was part of the commonweal. Let’s not suggest that anyone is enthusiastic about getting taxed. Nevertheless, one could draw a line from one’s own tax bill to the necessary services government provides. Without taxation, there is no solution to the crisis of public debt.

This point was reinforced yesterday when Neel Kashkari appeared on Bloomberg warning that America’s deficit was reaching crisis proportions without a reduction in spending. Nevermind that his boss, Bill Gross, was contributed to a Barron’s panel over the weekend by complaining that the Obama administration had failed to invest in American economic vitality because it hadn’t launched any large-scale infrastructure projects like high-speed trains.

We can’t referee inside PIMCO but it is striking that Kashkari’s point of view is confined to spending cuts with no mention of finding ways to raise taxes that won’t limit growth. In other words, the default cultural assumption in the US is that taxes are unconnected to economic vitality, social cohesion or personal happiness.

To take it a step further. Piers Morgan engaged in a fanciful line of banter with Oprah asking whether she would ever run for president given how popular she was and how much she’d done to help Barack Obama win election. Blessedly, Winfrey didn’t flirt with the ridiculous idea. “I know my lande,” she said with pride.

Another entertainer who not only flirted with the idea of running a state but actually won the office, Arnold Schwarzenegger, complained late last week that his political sojourn had probably cost him $200 million in lost income. The governor was quick to say that ‘it was more than worth it.’

The implication is that the only way Schwarzenegger can validate his time in office–as he leaves with a 23% approval rating–is by publicizing the magnitude of personal sacrifice he made for public service. Without a dollar figure, there would be no way find his work estimable.

This may be just the extreme end of a pendulum swing against government that began with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. Thirty years is a long arc even for political swings. So there’s probably something bigger at work here. For all of our hand-wringing about the fate of the American economy, US standards of living and our long term prospects, there doesn’t seem to be true sense of common purpose. Americans don’t want to invest their own money in what the government does. Citizens certainly don’t feel that the money they pay in taxes will be spent achieving the national goals they endorse.

That isn’t a political point of view. Conservatives feel government is too big and entitlements a massive transfer pump from the deserving to the undeserving. Liberals worry that their taxes pay for the world’s biggest military. Locally, everyone eyes the salaries and benefits of public workers with envy and remorse.

Cultural attitudes change, sometimes very quickly. But the looming problems with municipal, State and Federal debt in the US cannot be divorced from these attitudes toward funding government.

When the most visible persons opt out of viewing government as the hub of the commonweal, it is hardly the surprising that the rest of us should feel the same way. With the exception of Warren Buffet, few have acknowledged a connection between their own taxes and the robustness of the government. Showing, like many of the billionaire’s other quaint foibles, that he is a vestige of a different era.

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