The Forgotten Legacy of the Excess Profits Tax

July 21st, 2011 by Phil Mattera

Behind all the ideological posturing going on in Washington over the debt ceiling, there is a surprising amount of consensus on the wrongheaded proposition that corporations need more tax relief.

The bipartisan Gang of Six plan that has recently been at the center of attention provides for the reduction of the statutory corporate tax rate from 35 percent down to as low as 23 percent. It also calls for moving to a “competitive territorial tax system,” which, as Citizens for Tax Justice points out, would make it even easier for companies to exploit offshore tax havens. A reported new plan being discussed by President Obama and Speaker Boehner as this is being written would probably include something similar.

Corporate domination of our political discourse makes it all but impossible for national leaders to suggest that large companies, which have been enjoying abundant profits while much of the country suffers from high unemployment and other forms of economic distress, should be paying more, not less to keep the USA afloat. Behind many of the protestations against special tax breaks for the oil industry and ethanol producers are agendas that call for lowering the statutory corporate rate for all companies.

It wasn’t always this way.  The United States has a history, now largely forgotten, of imposing higher taxes on corporations during times of national emergencies. Excess profits taxes were imposed at various times to put a check on profiteering during wartime.

The first excess profits tax was enacted in 1917, less than a decade after the basic corporate income tax came into being. It remained in place through the World War I, and in 1919 President Wilson recommended that it be made part of the permanent tax system. Congress demurred, but the tax was not eliminated until 1921, well after the end of the war.

Interest in an excess profits tax was revived in the 1930s.The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 used a form of excess profits tax to prevent evasion of the declared-value capital stock tax. Later in the decade, as war seemed imminent, a broader based excess profits tax began to be discussed. In 1940 President Roosevelt, insisting that government should ensure that “a few do not gain from the sacrifices of many,” sent a message to Congress calling for a “steeply graduated excess-profits tax.”

There was little disagreement on the need for such a tax. The debate centered, instead, on how the levy would be calculated—especially the question of what base would be used to determine the excess. The tax remained in effect through 1945. Only five years later, Congress returned to an excess profits tax to help pay for the Korean War.

Writing in the Journal of Political Economy in 1951, economist George Lent wrote that the tax had “been accepted as an essential part of a broad system for the equitable distribution of the cost of defense.” Unfortunately, that acceptance turned out to be short-lived. The excess profits tax enacted in 1950 was terminated in 1953, and despite an ongoing Cold War and then large-scale intervention in Vietnam, corporations were no longer expected to shoulder a significant portion of U.S. military costs.

During the past decade the situation has grown even worse. Despite the existence of two expensive wars and a trend toward privatization of military functions that makes the conflicts extremely profitable to the private sector, no one talks of higher corporate taxes.  On the contrary, the demand for lowering those taxes has been relentless.

The justification for excess profits taxation need not be linked only to military costs and the profits of Pentagon contractors. Today we are seeing excessiveness of another kind in relation to corporate profits. Most large companies are enjoying bloated bottom lines by refusing to return their workforce back to pre-recession levels. They can do this because unemployment is high, unions are weak and those with jobs find it difficult to resist demands for intensified workloads.

Along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a war at home—a war against workers that amounts to a form of profiteering. If the leaders of this country were not in thrall to corporations, we would be talking about an excess profits tax focused on employers that keep their staffing levels artificially low.

It could very well turn out that higher, not lower taxes are what would induce companies to begin hiring again. Those companies which resist would at least be helping reduce the national deficit rather than further enriching the investor class.

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