President Opts for Business Tax Breaks Over Near-Term Job Creation

September 17, 2010

Far be it from me to say that the President shouldn’t do what he can to protect the endangered Democratic majorities in Congress. But the sop he’s offered to win support from the “business community” and its allies isn’t the sort of thing I’d hoped for from someone who only recently said that jobs aren’t “being created as fast as they need to be.”

I’m talking, of course, about the President’s new business tax cut proposals.

One of them would make the research and development tax credit permanent and the “simplified” option for claiming it more profitable. Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein reports that the latter change would increase the credit from 14% to 17%. Price tag about $100 billion over 10 years.

The other proposal would allow businesses to write off the entire costs of new equipment purchases through 2011. This would extend and expand a small business expensing provision that was originally part of the Bush administration’s Economic Stimulus Act. The write-off would be doubled and available to all businesses, including the largest corporations. Price tag about $30 billion over 10 years.

Now, it could make sense to put a permanent R&D credit in place. Congress has extended the “temporary” credit ever since it was enacted. No reason to believe it wouldn’t do so again. In the long run, the permanent extension would thus cost no more than a series of periodic extensions.

But it won’t do much for the vast majority of small businesses — those putative incubators of most new jobs. When the General Accountability Office last looked at the credit, it found that corporations with annual receipts over $1 billion claimed more than half of the total.

True, small start-up companies may also claim the credit, but only if they’re already turning a profit, paying taxes and able to afford the relatively high costs of documentation. Not the next Google being developed in someone’s garage. Not your typical mom and pop store either.

Nor, I think, will the R&D extension produce game-changing breakthroughs that wouldn’t have been developed any way. After all, companies invest in research and development because they think the results will ultimately generate significant products. They’re not going to give it up just because they can’t offset part of the costs with a credit — let alone because they’re not sure they’ll have the credit for years to come.

Let’s look at the credit from another angle. Perhaps the President’s proposal would bring some R&D jobs back home since only expenses for R&D conducted in the U.S. can be claimed.

Klein’s interviewee — the far-from-disinterested president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation — says that U.S. companies have expanded their R&D expenditures, but in other countries, e.g., China and Taiwan. No clear evidence that this choice was affected by any uncertainty about the credit or its limited value — quite the contrary.

So not many new jobs for Americans any time soon. And very few if any created will be opportunities for the workers hit hardest by the recession — those with no more than a high school diploma.

Maybe more jobs some day if some companies develop products that generate significant expansion and don’t outsource production, sales and other work. But that latter is a big if.

What about the equipment purchase write-off? We’re given to understand that corporations are sitting on a vast amount of cash. Will the opportunity to write off expenditures faster get them to spend it now?

As Howard Gleckman at the Tax Policy Center observes, “today’s economic malaise is caused largely by a lack of consumer demand.” Companies that foresee a near-term uptick they can’t manage with their existing equipment will buy more, with or without the extra incentive. Companies that don’t won’t.

But just say for the sake of argument that some companies decide to shift equipment purchases forward. Will that create jobs for American workers? Unless I’m missing something, the equipment doesn’t have to be manufactured in the U.S. Could this be a nice stimulus for, say, China or India?

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich looks at the longer-term impacts. Big corporations, he says, like the tax break for equipment purchases because they’re investing in automation to permanently reduce the need for workers. Insofar as the more generous provision worked, it would be subsidizing more job cuts — and not, I suspect, in big companies only.

Granted, the business tax breaks are a political strategy aimed at boxing Republicans into a corner and/or co-opting the small business argument against letting the top income tax brackets revert to their pre-Bush levels.

But they’re part of a larger picture. According to the White House blog, the President’s vision for America is “a place where we don’t just think about today; we think about tomorrow…. Where we lead the world in the things we make and sell, not just in the things we consume.”

Seems to me he’s not thinking enough about today — that he’s fixed his eyes on the future because he doesn’t have the gumption to do battle for measures that would tackle the jobs crisis we face right now.

He’d probably lose, but not in the minds and hearts of jobless and other anxious voters. And the odds aren’t much better for his latest “stimulus” initiatives any way.


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