Opinion

David Cay Johnston

Obama’s hamburger problem

David Cay Johnston
Mar 8, 2012 17:42 UTC

If President Barack Obama can persuade Congress to reduce the corporate income tax rate to 28 percent from 35 percent, he will move tax rates closer to what other modern countries charge.

But his plan to treat “manufacturing” as a special category, with a 25 percent tax rate, brings us to what I call Obama’s hamburger problem.

The problem is how to define manufacturing. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, I know manufacturing when I see it; I just don’t know how to define it in tax law.

Assembling automobiles is considered manufacturing. So what about assembling two hot protein discs with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions — all on a sesame seed bun?

The notion of hamburger-making as manufacturing may seem silly, a bit like the 1981 U.S. Agriculture Departmentproposal to classify ketchup as a vegetable for school lunches. But classifying activities as manufacturing or not becomes crucial if manufacturers pay taxes at a reduced rate.

Congress’ potential faulty tax logic

David Cay Johnston
Mar 2, 2012 21:13 UTC

With President Barack Obama and leaders in both parties favoring lower corporate tax rates, Washington seems poised to enact change next year. They need only resolve details like how much the rates should be cut, which tax avoidance strategies should be barred and whether to give manufactures a discounted rate.

If the corporate tax rate is cut, should the rates for dividends and long-term capital gains be increased?

That issue was inadvertently put on the table by a leading free market organization, the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI, as part of its support for cutting the corporate tax, promoted the idea last month that workers, not investors, bear the burden of that tax. In taking that line, however, the AEI has undercut its own argument for tax relief for investors. Indeed, it shifts the debate toward higher taxes on capital gains and dividends and lower taxes on wages.

Honey, they shrunk the IRS

David Cay Johnston
Jan 17, 2012 15:04 UTC

Congress will spend a trillion dollars more than it levies this year, so how do Washington’s politicians respond to the 11th consecutive year of federal budgets in red ink? They plan to shrink the IRS.

Go figure. Cutting the IRS budget by more than 5 percent in real terms makes as much sense as a hospital firing surgeons or a car dealer laying off salespeople when customers fill the showroom.

Shrinking the IRS makes sense if you believe government is too big and that cutting everywhere is the best way to shrink government. But this is the staff that generates revenue, and there is easy money to be made.

Time to junk income taxes?

David Cay Johnston
Jan 6, 2012 20:27 UTC

This is America’s 100th year for individual income tax, a system as out of touch with our era as digital music is with the hand-cranked Victrola music players of 1912. It is also the 26th year of the Reagan-era reform for both personal and corporate tax, a grand design now buried under special-interest favors.

With U.S. elections in November, and the George W. Bush tax cuts due to expire at the end of 2012, it’s time for a debate that goes beyond ginning up anger over taxes and the superficial issue of tax rates.

It’s time to consider whether to get rid of income taxes, personal and corporate. What are the strengths and weaknesses of our current system? Should we tax individual and corporate income — or something else?

The corporations that occupy Congress

David Cay Johnston
Dec 20, 2011 15:09 UTC

By David Cay Johnston

The views expressed are his own.

Some of the biggest companies in the United States have been firing workers and in some cases lobbying for rules that depress wages at the very time that jobs are needed, pay is low, and the federal budget suffers from a lack of revenue.

Last month Citizens for Tax Justice and an affiliate issued “Corporate Taxpayers and Corporate Tax Dodgers 2008-10″. It showed that 30 brand-name companies paid a federal income tax rate of minus 6.7 percent on $160 billion of profit from 2008 through 2010 compared to a going corporate tax rate of 35 percent. All but one of those 30 companies reported lobbying expenses in Washington.

Another report, by Public Campaign, shows that 29 of those companies spent nearly half a billion dollars over those three years lobbying in Washington for laws and rules that favor their interests. Only Atmos Energy, the 30th company, reported no lobbying.

Keeping people in poverty by trying to bring them out of it

David Cay Johnston
Dec 9, 2011 20:47 UTC

By David Cay Johnston

The views expressed are his own.

In nearly all 34 countries with modern economies, inequality is rising, a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows. The gap is especially pronounced in the United States where the country’s largest program to alleviate poverty may be adding to the problem, not alleviating it.

The United States ranks fourth in income inequality after Chile, Mexico and Turkey. In the U.S. the best-off 10 percent make on average 15 times the incomes of the poorest 10th, compared to a six to one ratio in the Nordic countries, Austria, Hungary and Switzerland.

The OECD report, published on Monday, cites the U.S. earned income tax credit as an explanation for a sharp increase in the hours worked by low-wage Americans.

Republicans paint themselves into a tax-cut corner

David Cay Johnston
Dec 6, 2011 15:32 UTC

By David Cay Johnston

The opinions expressed are his own.


Slyly encouraged by President Barack Obama, Republicans have painted themselves into a tax corner.

Who would have imagined a year ago, when Republicans rode the Tea Party’s anti-tax wave and retook the House of Representatives, that a year later Republicans would be forced to swallow a huge tax cut sponsored by Obama?

The irony is that Obama’s payroll tax cut could have been taken over by the Republicans as their issue, but they flubbed it.

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