Amodei’s Wonderland: Wherein Economic Vision Becomes Hallucination

One of the more confusing statements from Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV2) concerns how the Republican Tax Scam will affect the economy:

(Part A) “With respect to the effect on businesses, Main Street job creators will see their tax rates reduced through the lowering of the maximum tax rate on business income to no more than 25%. (Part B) Additionally, federal tax rates on corporate taxable income will see a decrease from the highest rate of 35% to a flat corporate tax rate of 20%. (Part C) Each of these changes will help businesses and corporations expand, hire new employees, increase wages, and also give them the resources they need to stay competitive in the global marketplace.”  [Amodei] (“parts” added for discussion)

Let’s begin with Part A, those “main street job creators” are the high income earners discussed yesterday as be beneficiaries of the Pass Through Loophole.   It really doesn’t matter if the firm’s address is Main Street, 5th Avenue, or Wall Street, the result is essentially the same.  After telling Nevadans not to worry about losing their most popular deductions because not all that many people use them and the new standard deductions will take care of them,  Amodei doesn’t apply the same test to the business and corporate deductions.  That Pass Through Loophole, by any and all other names, has resulted in massive revenue losses in Kansas, the state which imprudently serves as a laboratory for the GOP’s ideological economics.  Let’s not confuse Mom and Pop’s Midtown Market with the capital management firm of Grabbem, Gouggem, & Howe.   Both may “create jobs” but there’s no comparison in terms of how much of a tax break each will receive for having essentially the same number of employees.

Moving along to Part B:  Yes.  At present there’s a plethora of corporate accountants employed to create a situation in which a top rate of 39.1% becomes an effective rate far below that maximum rate.  One study of Fortune 500 companies reached the following conclusions:

  • As a group, the 258 corporations paid an effective federal income tax rate of 21.2 percent over the eight-year period, slightly over half the statutory 35 percent tax rate.

  • Eighteen of the corporations, including General Electric, International Paper, Priceline.com and PG&E, paid no federal income tax at all over the eight-year period. A fifth of the corporations (48) paid an effective tax rate of less than 10 percent over that period.
  • Of those corporations in our sample with significant offshore profits, more than half paid higher corporate tax rates to foreign governments where they operate than they paid in the United States on their U.S. profits.

Now, if they’re starting at 39.1% and getting their taxes down by half or even more at present — imagine what they can do when they start from 20-25% and work their way down?  For example, the “intangible drilling costs” loophole seems not to have closed up at all in the House version, and this while it’s acknowledged that seismic testing has significantly reduced the prospect of drilling dry holes.  The old Depletion Allowance survives as it always does, even if other deductions for mere mortals do not.

Or, consider the creative ways corporations use depreciation.  The House Ways and Means Committee version allows corporations to write off the depreciation for new equipment immediately.  Nice, if one is looking for a way to get from 20% down to a 10% tax rate or less.  [WaPo]  Not to put too fine a point to it, but while mere mortals are expected to absorb the elimination of student loan interest deductions, home mortgage interest deductions, and major medical expense deductions — the corporations go almost untouched.

Part C is unalloyed wishful thinking.  Walter Isaacson observes in his new book about Da Vinci that “vision without implementation is hallucination,” and this GOP canard is an almost perfect example.   Where the Tax Cut Fairy Waves Her Magic Wand wonders ensue — commerce increases, new employees will be hired, employees will have higher wages, and we will be “more competitive.”

Let’s step back from the hallucinations and observe what happens in the real world of employment:

“Service businesses, in which payroll is the major cost of providing the service, can take on higher payroll percentages since the payroll is, in fact, producing the revenue. There is likely to be no other significant cost of services to be provided. In such situations, payroll can reach the 50% mark without destroying profitability. Manufacturers, however, must maintain a payroll figure closer to 30% or less as the business must endure the cost of manufacturing the widget plus the payroll. Same with restaurants, given the high cost of food the payroll must stay under thirty percent.”

In order to lend any credence to the overblown rhetoric of GOP apologists for reducing corporate taxes and enacting pass-through loopholes, we have to merge all hiring from all sectors into one grand lump.  No matter the tax rate, what really matters is that the widget factory can keep its payroll allocations to 30% or less of its costs.  Nor can we argue that the sector with the highest payroll allocation, “service,” is all created equal.  This tertiary sector includes everything from health care to banking to education, to media and communications.   At the risk of continuous redundancy, the tax rate doesn’t determine payroll allocation — no one will be hired to do anything unless there is a demand for the goods or services beyond the capability of current staffing levels to deliver an acceptable level of consumer or client satisfaction.

Employees will have higher wages if the corporation gets a tax cut?  Probably not.  We can wade into the deeply arcane economic theoretical weeds and talk about the relationship between labor costs and tax liabilities, but let’s keep our feet on the ground instead.

Nevada has a fairly unique economy given one of our major sectors is “hospitality,” (or how to house, feed, and amuse people whom we want to leave behind large sums of money) establishments.  Therefore, there’s nothing surprising about finding out that we’ll need about 191,141 people working in food service in 2018; a growth rate of 2.8% with about 5,048 new positions expected. [DETR download]  The mean wage for food service workers is $12.74 per hour.  Most dealers are earning about $8.57 plus tips.  What will drive up food service and dealers’ wages?  Which is more likely to drive increases in food services wages: (a) more customers or (b) a bigger tax cut for corporate headquarters?

If you answered “b” then you are willing to wait for the calculations to be completed concerning how much the corporation should allocate for payroll expenditures, and then try to bank the results from this theory:

“Why would anyone think slashing corporate tax rates would increase workers’ wages in the first place? The theory endorsed by the CEA relies on three steps to get from corporate tax cuts to higher wages. First, the corporate tax cut increases companies’ after-tax returns on investment. As a result, firms will make more investments in plant and equipment than they would in a higher-tax-rate environment. Second, greater investment by firms leads to higher productivity by the workers who put those investments to work. Third and finally, workers will receive increased wages in line with those productivity gains.” [vox]

And, if you believe this I have a lovely bridge over the Humboldt River to sell you.  Why? Because corporations can do lots of other things with those savings — higher executive compensation, mergers and acquisitions, stock buy backs, and dividend payments.

Short Form:  Representative Amodei’s analysis requires redefining “job creators,” as those titans of the financial system who don’t necessarily become those doing the hiring; and requires disconnecting wages and salaries from the accepted wisdom about payroll allocation; and, means a person has to roll the dice and hope that the corporation trickles the money down to the counter-man.  In Isaacson’s parlance:  It’s vision without implementation.

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