Tag Archives: lobbying

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?

Good Question

A friend has shared with me a letter written by U.S. Representative Henry Waxman to one Deborah Holt. The crux of the inquiry is in the following paragraphs:

“According to lobbying disclosure documents filed with the U.S. Senate, you were retained by the State of Indiana to lobby regarding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. I al11 writing to request a briefing in order to better understand the State of Indiana’s interest in Keystone XL.

On January 24, 201 2, in responding to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels criticized President Obama’s recent decision to deny a permit for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. I I have subsequently learned that in the fourth quarter of 2011 you received $50,500 in state taxpayer funds as a lobbyist for the State of Indiana, including for lobbying related to Keystone XL. 2 This seems unusual as the State does not have an obvious interest in seeing the Keystone XL project constructed. The proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline does not pass through the State of Indiana, nor does it come close to the State’s borders; the nearest the:proposed route would approach would be hundreds of miles away in Nebraska and Kansas. Indiana facilities would not have access to the pipeline, nor would it appear that Indiana would particularly benefit from any economic activity associated with the construction of the pipeline. According to reports, TransCanada has contracted to purchase its steel from India – not from u.s.steel producers. The State of indiana thus appears to receive no clear benefit from the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Waxman goes on to quote the Canadian company building the pipeline to the effect that the project will increase oil prices in Indiana and several other states, so consumer concerns were evidently not a motivation for this interesting use of taxpayer dollars.

The amount of money involved is not great, but in a down economy, when Indiana taxpayers are being told we lack money for public education and other public services, when our fiscal shortfall is the reason Governor Daniels has given for laying off government workers, why are we spending scarce public dollars lobbying for a project that will not benefit us, and in which we appear to have no articulable interest?

Inquiring minds want to know.

I Guess It Isn’t the Money….

Dispatches from the Culture Wars reports:

“By employing a plethora of tax-dodging techniques, 30 multi-million dollar American corporations expended more money lobbying Congress than they paid in federal income taxes between 2008 and 2010, ultimately spending approximately $400,000 every day — including weekends — during that three-year period to lobby lawmakers and influence political elections, according to a new report from the non-partisan Public Campaign.

Despite a growing federal deficit and the widespread economic stability that has swept the U.S since 2008, the companies in question managed to accumulate profits of $164 billion between 2008 and 2010, while receiving combined tax rebates totaling almost $11 billion. Moreover, Public Campaign reports these companies spent about $476 million during the same period to lobby the U.S. Congress, as well as another $22 million on federal campaigns, while in some instances laying off employees and increasing executive compensation.”

To put these numbers in perspective, these corporations spent three times as much lobbying for preferential treatment as they paid in taxes.

Surprise, Surprise

Last week, there was a fair amount of publicity about a study issued by the Justice Policy Institute that found—drum roll, please–that private prison operators lobby for more stringent criminal laws.

In other news, the sun rose in the east yesterday.

There are certainly instances in which government outsourcing makes sense, but operating prisons is not one of them. As many observers of what I call “privatization ideology” warned when the first private prisons began operating, incarceration for profit is simply untenable: the incentives involved are inconsistent with good public management.  Prisons aren’t businesses, and they cannot and should not be run as businesses.

When a company’s profits depend upon jailing more people for longer periods, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that those companies will lobby for ever-more draconian laws and extended sentences. If that lobbying is successful, it will cost taxpayers much more than they saved by outsourcing (assuming the much-touted savings are real to begin with.)

It isn’t just prison outsourcing that threatens to distort policy-making. The United States no longer has a military draft, and we currently have more “contractors” in Iraq and Afghanistan than we do citizen-soldiers. As I pointed out in a paper several years ago, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, there are significant moral, legal and strategic problems that arise when governments essentially hire mercenaries to do their dirty work. For one thing, it is far easier to opt for a military “solution” to a problem when the Congressman casting the vote can simply “hire” soldiers, and doesn’t have to go home to his district and justify drafting his constituents. For another, the multi-national companies that provide the “soldiers for hire” have a vested economic interest in military combat.

Private prison operators lobby for stricter sentencing. Does anyone really believe that private companies providing combat services won’t lobby for war?