Perverse Incentives

I know this chart has probably been floating around the Internet for a while, but I recently came across it, and it really made me think.

The chart lists 30 major corporations, their profits for 2011, the amount of taxes each paid that year, and the amounts they paid lobbyists. A majority of those listed  paid zero taxes on massive profits, thanks to various provisions of the tax code. Many of them actually got money back, again, courtesy of those same arcane provisions. Virtually all of them spent millions of dollars lobbying the federal government; in every case, the amounts spent to influence policy far exceeded the amounts paid in taxes.

What’s wrong with this picture?

There are often sound reasons for using the tax code to encourage behaviors that benefit the greater society. If we want more energy, for example, and we recognize that the costs of exploration and the risk of coming up dry are high, it makes sense to provide a tax incentive to ameliorate that risk. If we want businesses to modernize, to invest in equipment that will make them more productive, offering them the ability to write off those investments over the useful life of the equipment is reasonable. There are many other examples.

The problem comes when the incentives bear no reasonable relationship to the behaviors they are intended to encourage–when those well-compensated lobbyists manage to persuade lawmakers to favor their clients by inserting special provisions in the law or special treatment in the tax code. In the case of oil and gas, for example, companies have not only benefitted from obscenely favorable tax provisions, but have negotiated leases of public lands on terms that have been widely criticized as giveaways.  Here in Indiana, Leucadia–a politically well-connected energy company–will benefit from a 30-year agreement with the state that effectively shields the company’s new coal gasification plant from unfavorable market conditions. 

Leucadia is hardly an isolated example. There’s a reason someone coined the term “crony capitalism.”

The well-connected and powerful have always been able to influence policy. To a certain extent, it’s an unavoidable aspect of human society. But in 21st Century America, we are dangerously close to corrupting the system, eviscerating checks and balances, and institutionalizing a caste system. Recent studies have documented America’s depressing loss of social mobility. Headlines routinely report the self-dealing of Wall Street bankers and financiers, along with the outrageous salaries and bonuses that bear no relationship to their performance. Jack Abramov, the disgraced lobbyist whose name has become synonymous with K-Street and Washington deal-making, is trying to rehabilitate his reputation in interviews sharing “chapter and verse” of influence-peddling in the nation’s capital, and the picture he paints is not pretty.

Local business-people, shop-owners, mom-and-pop enterprises and other middle-class Americans go to work every day, follow the rules, and pay their taxes when due. They don’t have agents working the halls of the legislature to get them special deals. They don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to contribute to Super-Pacs, and Citizens United didn’t free them to donate megabucks to buy a Congressman or two.

Shouldn’t the major corporations that are profiting so handsomely also be paying taxes to the country that makes those profits possible? Those companies depend upon workers educated in our public schools. They rely on our courts to enforce their contracts. Their trucks drive on roads paved by American taxpayers. Tax-supported police and fire-fighters protect their warehouses. Why do they prefer to pay millions to lobby for special advantage rather than simply using that money to pay their fair share of the costs to maintain our physical and social infrastructure?

What are the incentives that lead those who are already rich and privileged to seek even more by gaming the system?

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