Saturday, April 20, 2019

Behind Corporate Loopholes: Wealth and Power

A company in the U.S. wants a tax loophole to apply. Starbucks, for example, wanted to be able to use the manufacturing deduction by stretching manufacturing to include the roasting of coffee beans. So in 2004 the company hired Michael Evans, a lobbyist at K&L Gates who had just a year before worked as a top lawyer on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, which writes tax law. Evans was able to urge his former colleagues in the Senate to expand the definition of manufacturing to include roasting in a clause added to a 243-page tax bill called the American Jobs Creation Act.  As you might imagine, Starbucks was not the only company to get a tax break written into that law. By 2013, the manufacturing deduction had saved Starbucks $88 million that the company would otherwise have had to pay in corporate income tax. In 2012, corporate tax breaks and loopholes added $150 billion in lost revenue for the federal government, increasing the budget deficit by that amount.[1] Three lessons can be gleamed from the hidden corporate loopholes. 
First, the damage done to the U.S. debt by corporate loopholes has been significant. While dwarfed by the debt incurred to finance the Iraq and Afghanistan wars ($2.4 trillion added to the debt by 2013), $150 billion of lost revenue from corporate tax benefits for that period alone is nonetheless significant. 
Second, the “insider influence” itself violates the principles of openness and fairness, which are so esteemed in a democracy. The many points of access to influence legislation can be abused by legislators and lobbyists alike by their stealth dealings, sometimes literally in the middle of the night as a bill is about to be voted on. Ideally, the many points of access refers to the fact that various groups (and citizens) can reach legislators, not that the most powerful interests can abuse their ability to contact lawmakers for private gain (both to the interests and the lawmakers, thanks to political campaign contributions). In fact, for a lobbyist, including a corporate lobbyist, to have disproportionate influence on a bill to make it financially beneficial to the lobbyist's clients can be reckoned as a conflict of interest because even the information supplied is apt to be biased. The many points of access is meant to dilute the influence of the private interests that stand to benefit most from loopholes. 
Third, the contacts that lobbyists have in government from having worked there themselves can play a major role in the loopholes being granted and even in secret. Other self-interested interests cannot check the self-interested influence of the companies or industries that would gain most, so the private benefit gets away with eclipsing the public good. A law prohibiting former legislators and Congressional staffers from lobbying for at least ten years might make a dent in the inordinate insider influence of corporations in Congress. However, the influence of a Speaker of the House such as John Boehner, who became a corporate lobbyist after resigning from Congress, would hardly be diminished in his private influence, and thus earnings. Information that only insiders have sells. 
Like water, pent-up power naturally seeks its way around an obstruction with the objective of reaching an objective. The influence of wealth inexorably finds its way into the halls of power, especially in democracies as they have many points of access. This vulnerability is particularly great in cases in which candidates for public office must raise large sums of money to get elected. Asking the candidates to look the other way when a big donor is knocking at the door runs against human nature; even if laws prevent large donations, power finds its own way in the dark. The power both of candidates/lawmakers and corporations can be so massive that space itself bends toward mutual objectives. Perhaps the question is whether trying to bend space back only slightly is worth the time and energy of passing a law. Although removing the financial need of candidates for campaign funds (e.g., by public funding of advertising) could in theory take out part of the incentives on one side of the equation, corporations could tempt the incentive for private gain in other ways, such as with the promise of a lucrative job afterwards. 
In the end, the threat to the democracy is the inordinate power from the concentration of private wealth as in large corporations. The citizens are hardly focused in their collective use of their power, so the insiders in government tend to be influenced inordinately by the moneyed interest at the expense of the public good, the good of the whole.  

See my book: Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available at Amazon. Conflicts within the U.S. Government, in business, and between business and government are explored, as well as the very nature of an institutional conflict of interest. 

1 Ben Hallman and Chris Kirkham, “As Obama Confronts Corporate Tax Reform, Past Lessons Suggest Lobbyists Will Fight For Loopholes,” The Huffington Post, February 15, 2013.