Image by William Banzai
In previous installments, we’ve noted that we could more than offset the need for the “sequestration” budget cuts by doing any one or combination of the following:
- Stopping the counter-productive quantitative easing by the Fed
Liberals and conservatives agree that we should stop subsidizing the fatcats. For example, the conservative Cato Institute points out that corporate welfare amounts to almost $100 billion per year. Cato notes:
Corporate welfare often subsidizes failing and mismanaged businesses and induces firms to spend more time on lobbying rather than on making better products. Instead of correcting market failures, federal subsidies misallocate resources and introduce government failures into the marketplace.
While corporate welfare may be popular with policymakers who want to aid home-state businesses, it undermines the broader economy and transfers wealth from average taxpaying households to favored firms. Corporate welfare also creates strong ties between politicians and business leaders, and these ties are often the source of corruption scandals in Washington. Americans are sick and tired of “crony capitalism,” and the way to solve the problem is to eliminate business subsidy programs.
Cato also notes:
The federal government continues to subsidize some of the biggest companies in America. Boeing, Xerox, IBM, Motorola, Dow Chemical, General Electric, and others have received millions in taxpayer-funded benefits …. In addition, the federal crop subsidy programs continue to fund the wealthiest farmers.
(Indeed, the Federal Reserve threw money at hedge funds, McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson, “several billionaires and tens of multi-millionaires”, including Christy Mack, the wife of Morgan Stanley’s John Mack, billionaire businessman H. Wayne Huizenga, and Michael Dell, co-founder of Dell Computer, hedge fund manager John Paulson and private equity honcho J. Christopher Flowers.)
The liberal Huffington Post reports that corporate welfare dwarfs individual welfare:
Welfare Spending Nearly Half What U.S. Forked Out In Corporate Subsidies In 2006: Study
Welfare queens may actually look more like giant corporations.
Charles Koch, the CEO of Koch Industries, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this month that crony capitalism is a “destructive force” for business and government. [Both conservatives and liberals hate crony capitalism.]
Conservative Senator Tom Coburn has documented that many wealthy and famous people receive huge tax and other subsidies.
The liberal New Yorker magazine notes:
In recent decades, what you could call the corporate welfare state has become bigger. Energy companies lease almost forty million acres of onshore land in the U.S. and more than forty million offshore, and keep the lion’s share of the profits from the oil and natural gas that they pump out.
In 1996, for instance, the government temporarily lowered royalties on oil pumped in the Gulf of Mexico as a way of encouraging more drilling at a time of low oil prices. But this royalty relief wasn’t rescinded when oil prices started to rise, which gave the oil companies a windfall of billions of dollars. Something similar happened in the telecom industry in the late nineties, when the government, in order to encourage the transition to high-def TV, simply gave local broadcasters swathes of the digital spectrum worth tens of billions of dollars. In the mining industry, meanwhile, thanks to a law that was passed in 1872 and never rewritten, companies can lease federal land for a mere five dollars an acre, and then keep all the gold, silver, or uranium they find; we, the people, get no royalty payments at all. Metal prices have soared in the last decade, but the only beneficiaries have been the mine owners.
U.S. sugar companies benefit from the sweetest boondoggle in business: an import quota keeps American sugar prices roughly twice as high as they otherwise would be, handing the industry guaranteed profits.
The tax code, too, is a useful tool for helping businesses. Domestic manufacturers collectively get a tax break of around twenty billion dollars a year. State and local governments give away seventy billion dollars annually in tax breaks and subsidies in order to lure (or keep) companies. The strategies make sense for local communities keen to generate new jobs, but, from a national perspective, since they usually just reward companies moving from one state to another, they’re simply giveaways.
A New York Times investigation found that the number is even larger:
A Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of local incentives granted nationwide and has found that states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies. The beneficiaries come from virtually every corner of the corporate world, encompassing oil and coal conglomerates, technology and entertainment companies, banks and big-box retail chains.
The cost of the awards is certainly far higher. A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards.
A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.
For many communities, the payouts add up to a substantial chunk of their overall spending, the analysis found. Oklahoma and West Virginia give up amounts equal to about one-third of their budgets, and Maine allocates nearly a fifth.
Nationwide, billions of dollars in incentives are being awarded as state governments face steep deficits. Last year alone, states cut public services and raised taxes by a collective $156 billion ….
But this isn’t just a state issue. As the Times notes, “20 percent of state and local budgets come from federal spending.”
The New Yorker continues:
More subtly, government boosts business profits via regulation. The most obvious example, perhaps, is the banking industry. The F.D.I.C. encourages people to deposit money in banks, and the biggest banks also benefit from the perception that the government will not allow them to fail, which enables them to borrow money at a low cost. Another leading beneficiary of regulation is the ethanol industry, a sacred cow of American politics. The government requires refiners to blend billions of gallons of ethanol into gasoline annually, and hands out an ethanol tax credit. As a result, forty per cent of corn acreage in the U.S. now goes to make ethanol. This jacks up food prices, since less corn is grown for feed and table, and the environmental benefit is dubious. But farmers and refiners benefit enormously, so the mandate stays in place. [Treehugger notes that - as of 2007 - 76% of all federal renewable energy support went to ethanol.] Vested interests of this kind also explain why so many states have onerous licensing regulations; Florida says that you need six years of training and apprenticeship to become an interior designer. Such regulations, which have grown precipitously in recent decades, are catnip to incumbent businesses worried about competition.
Perhaps the biggest boon that the government offers business is the benefit of copyright and patent protection. As the [liberal] economist Dean Baker shows in his book “The End of Loser Liberalism,” patent protection is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the drug industry alone. And while most of us would find it hard to imagine doing without copyrights and patents, that doesn’t justify the huge expansion of intellectual-property rights we’ve seen of late: the length of copyright has been expanded eleven times since 1962, and the range of things that can be patented has increased hugely, even in areas where, as [conservative, free market advocate] Judge Richard Posner recently argued, there’s little or no economic benefit to society.
Forbes’ Doug Bandow – a conservative from the Cato institute – notes:
Most politicians want to cut the federal budget in theory. Few want to cut it in practice. So it is with corporate welfare, which is enthusiastically supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Among the most outrageous expenditures is corporate welfare. Desperate businesses now overrun Washington, begging for alms. Believing that profits should be theirs while losses should be everyone else’s, corporations have convinced policymakers to underwrite virtually every industry: agriculture, education, energy, housing, manufacturing, medicine, transportation, and much more.
Cutting business subsidies would be a good start to balancing the budget. Moreover, going after corporate welfare is essential to create a budget package that the public will see as fair. Corporate welfare reflects politics at its worst.
The largest single source of business subsidies is the Department of Agriculture, with $25.1 billion. For the most part crop payments go to large farmers, who are big businessmen.
Bondow notes that – notwithstanding mainstream Republican party rhetoric – narrowly-drafted tax loopholes are a form of subsidy:
Spending is the most obvious but not only form of corporate welfare. Tax preferences, often called “tax expenditures,” are the functional equivalent of direct outlays. Failing to tax is not the same as spending, since all income does not belong to the government. However, when the government provides a narrow exemption from general tax obligations it essentially is writing a check. While appropriations have some level of transparency, tax preferences often are obscurely drafted and dropped into larger bills, hidden from public view. Taxpayers then are unaware that they are being looted.
He also notes the hypocrisy of Republican politicians who talk about the free market, but enthusiastically dole out corporate pork:
The greater outrage is support for corporate welfare from the Right. Political conservatives wax poetic about the virtues of the free market, but conservative office-holders often are pro-business rather than pro-market.
Liberal writer Matt Stoller notes:
Here are eight corporate subsidies in the fiscal cliff bill that you haven’t heard of.
1) Help out NASCAR - Sec 312 extends the “seven year recovery period for motorsports entertainment complex property”, which is to say it allows anyone who builds a racetrack and associated facilities to get tax breaks on it. This one was projected to cost $43 million over two years.
2) A hundred million or so for Railroads - Sec. 306 provides tax credits to certain railroads for maintaining their tracks. It’s unclear why private businesses should be compensated for their costs of doing business. This is worth roughly $165 million a year.
3) Disney’s Gotta Eat - Sec. 317 is “Extension of special expensing rules for certain film and television productions”. It’s a relatively straightforward subsidy to Hollywood studios, and according to the Joint Tax Committee, was projected to cost $150m for 2010 and 2011.
4) Help a brother mining company out – Sec. 307 and Sec. 316 offer tax incentives for miners to buy safety equipment and train their employees on mine safety. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to bribe mining companies to not kill their workers.
5) Subsidies for Goldman Sachs Headquarters – Sec. 328 extends “tax exempt financing for York Liberty Zone,” which was a program to provide post-9/11 recovery funds. Rather than going to small businesses affected, however, this was, according to Bloomberg, “little more than a subsidy for fancy Manhattan apartments and office towers for Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Corp.” Michael Bloomberg himself actually thought the program was excessive, so that’s saying something. According to David Cay Johnston’s The Fine Print, Goldman got $1.6 billion in tax free financing for its new massive headquarters through Liberty Bonds.
6) $9B Off-shore financing loophole for banks – Sec. 322 is an “Extension of the Active Financing Exception to Subpart F.” Very few tax loopholes have a trade association, but this one does. This strangely worded provision basically allows American corporations such as banks and manufactures to engage in certain lending practices and not pay taxes on income earned from it. According to this Washington Post piece, supporters of the bill include GE, Caterpillar, and JP Morgan. Steve Elmendorf, super-lobbyist, has been paid $80,000 in 2012 alone to lobby on the “Active Financing Working Group.”
7) Tax credits for foreign subsidiaries – Sec. 323 is an extension of the “Look-through treatment of payments between related CFCs under foreign personal holding company income rules.” This gibberish sounding provision cost $1.5 billion from 2010 and 2011, and the US Chamber loves it. It’s a provision that allows US multinationals to not pay taxes on income earned by companies they own abroad.
8 ) Bonus Depreciation, R&D Tax Credit – These are well-known corporate boondoggles. The research tax credit was projected to cost $8B for 2010 and 2011, and the depreciation provisions were projected to cost about $110B for those two years, with some of that made up in later years.
And as conservative Congressman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said of defense contractors in 1986:
They are the new welfare queens, isolated from competition and the consequences of their mistakes and with the government always ready to bail them out….
(Here are some specific examples of welfare handouts to defense contractors, which total many hundreds of billions of dollars per year.)