Friday, March 30, 2012

Tax Breaks for Big Oil or for Big Hollywood?

Congress rejected the Obama administration’s proposal to “end tax breaks for big oil.” The White House will prominently feature the Republicans as the lackeys of Big Oil in the 2012 election.
The Obama administration tells us that “tax breaks for big oil” deprive our treasury of billions.  Besides that, the energy giants are making giant profits. They are greedy and don’t want to pay their fair share. Also we hear that tax subsidies are driving up the price of gas at the pump. (I guess no one in the Obama administration took an economics exam. Subsidies increase supply and drive down the price).
If we dig deeper into the tax code, we learn that “Big Oil” tax breaks apply, in most cases, to other industries, not just to “Big Oil” as we are led to think. These other beneficiaries are not under attack. I guess they are either less successful, less greedy, or give more to the White House.
If the Obama administration wants to be honest, it should propose to Congress to continue tax subsidies that other industries routinely receive with the exception of oil and gas, for which the tax breaks will be cancelled on a discriminatory basis.
For example: 1) Depletion allowances apply generally to industries with finite supplies of natural resources above and below ground. They even apply to timber, which I thought was a renewable resource; 2) Intangible drilling costs allow oil companies to write off in one year costs associated with drilling, such as building roads and transporting supplies. Many other companies and industries have similar provisions (see Hollywood below); 3) The sheltering of taxes on profits earned abroad applies to all companies with international operations, not just to “Big Oil.” Microsoft may save as much from this provision as “Big Oil,” but Microsoft is not a target at this moment. Maybe later.
After reading Sec. 181 of the IRS code on “Treatment of Certain Qualified Film and Television Productions,” I became more concerned about “Big Hollywood” than about “Big Oil.” It turns out the filmmakers can write off the entire costs of film or television productions up to $15 million. In a deft touch of social engineering, I further learn that filmmakers can write off more if the costs are incurred in a low-income community (under section 4-D) or an isolated area of distress (designated by the Delta Regional Authority under section 20009aa-1 of Title 7). The latter must be a pay off to New Orleans. I can also imagine an IRS agent tacking film crews through treacherous slums to make sure they are spending their money in the hood.
I favor the elimination of all tax subsidies – to oil, timber, Hollywood, renewable energy and so on (The list is without end).  All tax preferences, even beloved ones such as the home interest deduction, distort economic decision making. So let’s get rid of all of them and place all economic activity on a level playing field. In return, we can all enjoy lower tax rates, not just “Big Hollywood.”


  1. Did the movie Spring Breakers get a big write off for shooting in the south saint petersburg, florida area? thank you