Politicians Use Tax Breaks to Subsidize Manufacturing. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?


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A recent court ruling allowing the use of the “manufacturing” tax deduction by a company that places candy bars and bottled wine in gift baskets illustrates a truth that politicians hate to admit: The tax code is a lousy tool for encouraging domestic manufacturing.

In a recent column, gadfly journalist David Cay Johnston berated the federal district judge in the case for his interpretation of section 199 of the tax code, which allows a company to deduct 9 percent of its income that is generated from domestic manufacturing. This law was passed by Congress after the World Trade Organization (WTO) found in 2002 that a U.S. tax break meant to encourage exports violated trade treaties and the European Union began to impose sanctions against the U.S. in 2004. Congress decided to replace the illegal tax break with a new one, which became section 199.

By the time it was enacted, this provision had been hijacked by lawmakers who stretched the term “manufacturing” to include things like drilling for oil, constructing buildings, and the architectural services to design those buildings. A footnote in the conference report in the legislation made clear that a company like Starbucks could claim the deduction for roasting coffee beans used in its beverages.

In fact, the definition of manufacturing seems so unclear that we should not be surprised by the recent court ruling regarding gift baskets. Johnston notes that Greg Mankiw, who was President Bush’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, questioned the whole concept in 2004 when he wrote, “When a fast-food restaurant sells a hamburger, for example, is it providing a ‘service’ or is it combining inputs to ‘manufacture’ a product?”

More Tax Breaks for Companies that Already Avoid Taxes?

President Obama has proposed to increase such tax incentives. His “framework” for corporate tax reform, the vague plan for lowering the corporate tax rate to 28 percent that he made public in February of 2012 and proposed again recently with slight changes, would expand the section 199 deduction.

In theory, the President’s proposal could improve things because it would “focus the deduction more on manufacturing activity,” which is a nice way of saying that oil companies and people who assemble gift baskets are on their own.

But the bigger question is whether American manufacturers actually need tax breaks. In 2012, just before Obama announced his “framework,” he told a crowd at a Boeing plant in Washington State that companies that use tax breaks to shift operations and profits offshore ought to pay more U.S. taxes and the revenue “should go towards lowering taxes for companies like Boeing that choose to stay and hire here in the United States of America.” CTJ immediately released figures showing that Boeing’s effective tax rate over the previous decade was negative. In fact, there had only been two years during that decade when Boeing paid anything in federal income taxes.

Fix the Real Problems

A lot of people in the Obama Administration and in Congress (and, of course, K Street lobbyists) have the idea that our corporate tax is too burdensome on companies and that this pushes them to manufacture products offshore. However, CTJ’s major 2011 study of most of the profitable Fortune 500 corporations found that two-thirds of those with significant offshore profits actually paid higher taxes in the other countries where they did business than they paid in the U.S.

The real problem with our international corporate tax rules is the provision allowing American companies to “defer” paying U.S. taxes on the profits of their offshore subsidiaries until those profits are brought to the U.S. And to a large extent, deferral results in American companies disguising their U.S. profits as tax haven profits rather than moving actual operations. And that problem cannot be solved by any amount of tax breaks thrown at companies that claim to “manufacture” something in the U.S.

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