Tag Archives: lobbyists

How is Foreign Tax Repatriation Different than Immigration Amnesty?

As politicians in DC lurch toward some sort of bipartisan approach to immigration, conservatives remain adamant that immigrants currently in the country illegally be given no path to citizenship. These conservatives see no reason to reward lawbreakers with citizenship, and worry about the message that will send to future immigrants: if you come here illegally and stay long enough, you will get away with it. I understand this perspective; amnesty reeks of moral hazard. I think that realistically, we need to find a path anyway – we can’t just deport 11million people, many of them employed and embedded in society. But I do very much appreciate the concerns of conservatives on this issue.

However, at the same time, the same conservatives are calling for a tax holiday that will let US companies repatriate their offshore cash at reduced tax rates. Under current law, companies can keep their overseas profits in low tax countries, but if they try to bring that cash back home, they have to pay higher US taxes. In 2004 companies were granted a one-time holiday, with tax rates reduced to 5 percent, and they took advantage by bringing a ton of dough back into the US. But of course, all this tax amnesty did was encourage companies to keep driving their revenue through offshore tax havens, and then use their lobbyists to push for another tax holiday.

If amnesty creates moral hazard, by encouraging people to do the wrong thing and then be forgiven, why would multinational companies be different than illegal immigrants? Storing your cash offshore is not illegal, while immigrating illegally obviously is, but the motivation component is the exact same: if you believe that amnesty encourages behavior, then you need to apply that theory equally across your policies.

By the way, among the leading rationales advanced for the tax holiday is that companies will invest the repatriated cash in jobs and growth. However, studies of the last holiday showed that companies mostly returned the cash to shareholders. Even the Wall Street Journal says so! Here is a story about how companies play the cash repatriation game, and here is one about how hard corporate lobbyists are pushing for a holiday.

Is Gun Culture Just As Bad As Hollywood?

When Wayne LaPierre of the NRA held his famous press conference after the Sandy Hook massacre, he criticized and cast blame on Hollywood and the videogame industry and their violent products. This is a common trope of the NRA and certain elements of the gun crowd: that our society’s media products glorify violence and create a culture where massacres are bound to happen.  According to LaPierre, the videogame industry is “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people” and thus we have “killers, robbers, rapists, gang members who have spread like cancer in every community across our nation.”

And here’s the thing: I don’t totally disagree. The data from studies of this are inconclusive, including a new study that just came out: see more here and here. But to me it seems hard to believe that a person, especially a malleable teenager, can keep watching grotesquely violent movies like the Saw series, or playing shoot ‘em up games like Doom or Killzone, and not become slightly inured to violence. Maybe more violent, maybe not, but certainly with a greater tolerance for violence.

But if you buy into the concept that violent memes in culture could play a role, then the NRA itself, and those same certain elements of the gun crowd, are just as culpable as Hollywood and videogame makers.  I mean, look at the NRA’s favorite saying: “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.” Kind of violent, right? Or another quote from LaPierre at his press conference: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” How is that statement less glorifying of violence than Killzone? Or remember Sharron Angle and her call for “2nd amendment remedies” to government decisions she didn’t like? That sounds like a glorification of violence to me. How about the claim of gun rights activists that the 2nd amendment is all about fighting tyranny by enabling armed revolt against the government; that too sounds like promoting violence against laws you don’t like. [Note: I am not versed in the history of the 2nd amendment, so I have no idea if this claim is right or not; I only point out that it tends to be expressed in a way that glorifies violence.]

There is a ton to be said about gun rights and gun safety, and I’m not saying any of it, although I did recently point out that stupidity + guns = badness. But I am saying that if you want to talk about how culture breeds violence, you better be careful about your own words, because they too might breed violence. In my opinion, the gun crowd isn’t careful, and their cultural contributions are as violence-tinged as anything out of Hollywood.

By the way, has anyone ever noticed that LaPierre sort of looks like the villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark, right before the Ark of the Covenant melts his face away?

Wayne LaPierre

Wayne LaPierre

Villain With Face Melting

Villain With Face Melting

Why is Health Care So Expensive?

According to Steven Brill, whose 26,000 word article in Time is getting all kinds of attention, one big factor is price negotiation. An uninsured patient can’t negotiate at all, so they get charged $1.50 for a single Tylenol in a hospital. Insurance companies negotiate on their customers’ behalf, so they get charged less. And Medicare, which is the biggest player of all, negotiates hard — volume discounts and all, just like any big customer anywhere in the world — and thus pays the least for the same products and procedures.

Interestingly, Brill steps away from one obvious solution — have Medicare cover everyone — because he says it will leave doctors underpaid. Felix Salmon takes him to task for this, pointing out that Brill never states what “underpaid” is. Since my greedy doctor post remains my most read and commented of all time, I feel a certain obligation to chime in here. I have never seen any analysis that tries to show what doctors might get paid in an all-Medicare system. Maybe it would be pretty low; if GPs maxed out at $50,000 per year, they probably wouldn’t spend all that money and time at medical school. But maybe doctors would still get paid what they do now, and it would be hospital administrators (whose multi-million dollar salaries are the true villains in Brill’s piece) getting a pay cut. Or maybe it will be CEOs of drug companies getting paid less; who would complain about fewer $78 million severance packages being paid to CEOs?

You can read more commentary regarding Brill’s article here and here.

One Reason to Limit Access to Guns

With a renewed national dialog about gun safety (I am adopting James Fallow’s nomenclature; let’s focus not on controlling guns, but on improving gun safety), I want to point out that stupidity and aggression are not constitutionally protected, and when you combine them with guns, bad things can happen. Things like:

  • A 6th grader bringing a gun to school for “protection,” and then pointing that gun at other children
  • A man forcing another man to do the moonwalk at rifle point
  • A man shooting and killing his roommate in an argument over how to cook pork chops
  • A man pulling a gun on a furniture delivery man in an argument over paying a delivery fee
  • A man going to his apartment and bringing out a rifle after having his penis size insulted in his apartment building pool

No 2nd Amendment exegesis here. Just noting that people can do a lot of awful things, and when you put killing devices in their hands, those awful things can get even worse.

Of course, 60% of my examples took place in Florida, so maybe the answer is to have tougher gun laws in that state, but leave the rest of the country alone.

Overseas Cash and Justin Bieber

As tax reform is discussed in preparation for our upcoming leap off the fiscal cliff, among the topics has been corporate tax reform, in particular how American companies are taxed on their overseas income. As the system currently works, as long as US companies keep their cash offshore, they don’t have to pay US taxes. Once they bring that money back, it’s a flat 35% tax rate. So, not surprisingly, US companies with multinational operations have a lot of cash stashed overseas. Read all about it here, here, here and here.

The thing is, some of these companies have so much cash overseas, and so little here in the US, that they’re borrowing money to fund their operations here, or to fund dividends and stock buybacks. But they (the companies and the reporters covering this topic) are making it seem like the companies CAN’T bring the money back to America. Let’s be very clear: they CAN bring the money back, it will just cost them 35%.

For example, here is how the WSJ described it:

Each of these companies is grappling with a growing problem that comes from keeping Uncle Sam away from their foreign income: How to round up enough cash in the U.S. to cover items like dividends, share repurchases, debt repayments and pension contributions.

And here is how a CFO described it in the WSJ:

“You end up with the really peculiar result where you are borrowing money in the U.S. while you show cash on the balance sheet that is trapped overseas,” said Bruce Nolop, former chief financial officer of Pitney Bowes and E-Trade Financial and now a director at Marsh & McLennan. “It is a totally inefficient capital structure.”

Now I understand why companies are keeping their cash overseas: it’s their job to minimize taxes. And I can certainly see why they would rather borrow at historically low interest rates (like 5%) than pay a 35%. No complaints from me on either front. But for the companies to act like it’s just impossible for them to bring the cash home annoys me. They choose not to bring the cash home, for good reasons, but if they really wanted to they could. It’s like saying that you can’t get Justin Bieber to play at your daughter’s bat mitzvah. You can, but it’s going to cost you a boatload.

Are Businessmen Evil?

Jane Mayer’s article in the New Yorker about David Koch and his brother Charles and their massive funding of right wing political causes is an absolute must read. Regardless of political leaning, I think everyone should be disturbed by the ability of two incredibly wealthy men to so powerfully affect the political discourse in our society, and to do so anonymously.

But the article also made me think about how the Kochs and other businessmen are so determined to lobby government to support “free enterprise,” or at least to quash regulations that might hurt their business. The article discusses how the Kochs are using the same strategy on global warming – fund enough junk science to convince people that there is no scientific consensus – which the tobacco companies used so effectively to stall regulation of nicotine.

The issue I’m contemplating is not one of maximizing profits, but a broader moral issue. What makes a CEO who knows his product is harmful fight so hard against regulation? Does he take his fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder profits that seriously? Is he so focused on his own compensation that he doesn’t care what health problems he causes? The Kochs are nutjob John Birchers, so I expect them to screw over the world, but what about all the other CEOs? What about those who are fighting against environmental regulations even though they know that the global warming science is solid? Or Wall Street CEOs fighting against regulations when they know that their companies caused the financial meltdown? Or coal mining CEOs fighting safety regulation after an explosion in their mine killed 29 workers?

Look, I’m not anti-business. To the contrary, I am solidly pro-business. I’ve worked at companies, I’ve started companies, I consult to companies. My whole life is built on business. I understand the profit motive. What I don’t understand is the willingness to screw over the public in order to make more money. These CEOs would never in a million years think it was OK to stab a man and steal his wallet, but they have no problem poisoning him with industrial waste in order to save money. When do these people have enough? Where is their sense of human decency?

Vote The Bums Out

The NY Times published an article yesterday about how congressmen are still taking fancy trips paid for by corporations, despite ethics rules passed in 2007 to prevent such trips. These congressmen aren’t breaking the rules, but rather exploiting loopholes to get around the rules. James Sensenbrenner, for example, the jowly representative from Wisconsin’s 5th District, took a $15,000 trip to the Alps this year, with his wife, paid for by a “non-profit” funded by Deutsche Bank, Lufthansa and other European corporations.

I would like to think that Congress might tighten up the rules to close the loopholes, but expecting Congress to police itself is like expecting Thierry Henry to report his own soccer violations. So we, the voters, have to do the police work. Regular readers of Thoughtbasket know that I regularly exhort citizens to stay informed and vote accordingly. So members of Wisconsin’s 5th District, living in the lovely Northwestern suburbs of Milwaukee, likely Brewers fans and bratwurst lovers, if you would prefer your congressman to pay attention to your needs, instead of to the needs of large German companies, then vote out James Sensenbrenner. Find a Republican who cares more about grain elevators than about Teutonic castles, who would rather tour a dairy farm than a prince’s castle.  If your congressman does not truly represent you, find one who will.