Hamilton: Unwitting Father of Tax Breaks


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Hamilton’s 16 nominations and the 11 Tony awards it received last Sunday came as no surprise after months of critical and popular acclaim. What was unforeseen during Sunday night’s Tony’s telecast were the shout outs to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who was wholly uninvolved in the production of Hamilton or any other live theater production. What exactly did Schumer do to earn such accolades?

Year after year, Congress has renewed a package of temporary tax provisions known as the “tax extenders.” Most of the tax extenders are simply costly tax breaks designed for special interest groups and contribute very little to the nation’s economy. Sen. Schumer is receiving so much praise from Broadway recently because he managed to get “live theatrical productions” added to the film credit, which allows investors to immediately deduct the full cost of production in lieu of a longer depreciation schedule.

Broadway producers argue that including “live theatrical productions” in the film credit will protect their finances from under-performing shows. The fact that taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for protecting the economic well-being of wealthy theater producers notwithstanding, there are hits and there are flops every season (just as there are ups and downs in the financial markets), regardless of whether investors have a favorable tax credit. The industry has done just fine without the tax credit, employing tens of thousands of workers and has an economic impact of $12.57 billion in New York alone. While proponents of the tax break claim it is as an easy way to free up investment capital, in reality it is just another special interest tax break that disproportionately benefits a small number of wealthy individuals.

After officially premiering on Broadway in August 2015, Hamilton earned $61.7 million by April 2016, easily recouping the original $12.5 million investment. Investors' return could add up to $300 million within a few years by some estimates.

Hamilton’s success has been used by proponents of the live theater tax break to promote the economic and cultural importance of enacting and extending the tax break. This makes no sense: Investors financed Hamilton well before Congress passed the tax break, and the production owes none of its success to the credit. In other words, Hamilton seems a better example of why the credit is unnecessary rather than a reason for its enactment.

The film credit is just one example of a variety of special interest tax breaks in the extenders package that distort American markets and give very little back to the economy. There are niche extenders including tax breaks on rum, hard cider, NASCAR, and race horses, but there are also larger tax breaks that have significantly detrimental effects on our economy and only serve to boost the profits of large corporations. These tax breaks include bonus depreciation, the research credit, and offshore loopholes such as the active financing exception and the look-through rule. In total, full extension of the tax extenders will cost the American tax payer $740 billion over a decade. Congress should allow provisions like the live theater production tax break to expire in the coming years and also reverse course on its fiscally disastrous decision to make several other tax extenders permanent.

The irony, of course, is that all of those in favor of this tax break are pointing to a musical that was produced before the tax break took effect and is about a strong advocate of federal taxes. To quote our first Secretary of the Treasury, “[taxes] are evidently inseparable from Government. It is impossible without them to pay the debts of the nation, to protect it from foreign danger, or to secure individuals from lawless violence and rapine."

Aaron Medelson, a CTJ intern, contributed to this report.

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