Capping the Oil Profits Gusher

You know the gas price problem is getting bad when even leading Republicans need to make noise about petroleum industry tax breaks.

John Boehner caused a stir the other day when he seemed to be telling an interviewer from ABC News that he was in favor of cutting federal subsidies for the oil giants. “It’s certainly something we should be looking at,” he said.

My initial reaction was that a Boehner look-alike working with the Yes Men had made the remarkable statement. Alas, it turned out to be a tease or a case of temporary sanity, for Boehner’s people later clarified that the Speaker was not actually calling for reductions in the giveaways. Perhaps he meant to say that we should examine the subsidies to be sure they are high enough.

Before Boehner’s true position became clear, President Obama seized on the moment to remind Congress about the Administration’s proposal to do away with “unwarranted” oil industry tax breaks. Such a move would be welcome but far from adequate.

Consider the size of those tax breaks. The Administration’s 2012 budget estimates that the repeal of eight oil & gas tax preferences would save all of $3.5 billion in 2012. The amount would rise to $5.4 billion in 2013 and then fall to $4.6 billion by 2016. The total increase in federal revenues over five years would be only $23 billion.

Compare these amounts to the profits being reported by the U.S.-based oil supermajors. For 2010, Exxon Mobil alone posted total profits of $30 billion, up 58 percent from the year before. Chevron’s net income was $19 billion and that of ConocoPhillips $11 billion. This year those amounts are expected to soar again.

If the entire loss of tax breaks were to be shouldered by these three companies alone, their combined profits would sink by only a couple of percentage points.

Rather than simply eliminating some subsidies, now is the time to revive the push for a windfall profits tax. That will not be music to the ears of Obama, who had made the idea a centerpiece of his 2008 presidential campaign, only to drop it shortly after being elected. That plan was expected to collect $65 billion over five years—much more than the savings from eliminating current tax breaks—and the proceeds were meant to help people pay for higher energy costs, not to make a small dent in the national debt.

Corporate apologists say that the federal government has no reason to complain about galloping oil industry profits because it collects more in tax revenues. Unfortunately, that federal share has been shrinking. In 2008 Exxon Mobil paid about $3 billion to Uncle Sam on pretax U.S. earnings of $10.1 billion, or about 30 percent. Last year Exxon’s domestic federal tax rate was only 16 percent. The rates paid by Chevron and ConocoPhillips also fell sharply. Moreover, Exxon and Chevron pay meager amounts of state income tax.

Rather than mitigating the profits windfall, the tax system—as manipulated by the oil giants—is exacerbating the problem.

It’s difficult to believe, but an oil industry windfall profits tax was once part of the mainstream policy agenda, even in the Republican Party. In his 1975 State of the Union Address, President Ford promoted the idea to compensate for the elimination of controls on domestic oil prices. In 1980 Congress enacted such a tax (actually an excise tax on crude oil) that remained in place for eight years.

Conventional wisdom these days is that aggressive tax policies—not to mention price controls—are counter-productive. Yet even Big Oil seems somewhat uncomfortable about its good fortune.

The American Petroleum Institute issued a press release the other day that used an unusual argument to try to blunt popular anger over the industry’s embarrassment of riches. API touted a new study purporting to show that oil and gas stock holdings have been providing a big boost to public pension funds.

Those would be the same public pension funds that are said to be desperately underfunded because of shortfalls in, among other things, corporate tax payments by the likes of the oil giants. Rather than depending on a bit of indirect capital appreciation, we would be much better off if the petroleum industry paid higher federal and state tax rates, especially when oil prices—and thus profits—are going through the roof.

Dodging Unions and Taxes

Boeing is used to getting its own way. Earlier this year, for instance, it emerged the surprise victor in a long-running battle for a massive Air Force tanker plane contract.

That charmed existence is now facing a setback potentially much more serious than the bad press the company faced recently when a hole ripped open in one of its old 737s during a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix to Sacramento. The National Labor Relations Board is charging the company with a violation of federal labor law for its 2009 decision to locate a second Dreamliner aircraft assembly line at a non-union facility in South Carolina.

The South Carolina move was not just a blow to aerospace workers in the Seattle area, Boeing’s traditional manufacturing base. It was also an egregious example of a large corporation riding roughshod over communities and labor by employing two socially irresponsible practices at the same time: avoiding unions and dodging taxes. It is reassuring that at least one of those ploys may now be backfiring.

Boeing’s dual avoidance strategies started well before it became enamored of the Palmetto State. Although the company’s Washington State operations were unionized long ago, Boeing has for years tried to weaken those unions by seeking two-tier wage structures and by steadily outsourcing portions of the work to foreign contractors.

When the company was ready to begin production of its much-anticipated Dreamliner, it forced Washington to compete with around 20 other states for the work and agreed to stay there only after the legislature in 2003 approved a package of research & development tax credits and cuts in Business & Occupation taxes (the state’s substitute for a corporate income tax), sales taxes and property taxes that together were estimated to be worth $3.2 billion over 20 years. The state also overhauled its unemployment insurance system to reduce costs for Boeing and other employers and tightened up on workers compensation claims.

All those giveaways did not satiate Boeing. Rather than showing its appreciation to Washington, the company went shopping for a better deal for the second Dreamliner production line. In South Carolina it was rewarded with both a subsidy package that has been valued at more than $900 million (click on illustration for details) and a “right to work” law that all but guarantees to keep out unions.

The cumulative effect of Boeing’s practices can be seen in the details of its 10-K annual filings. As a result of those subsidies, the company estimates its total 2010 state tax bill at less than zero—it expects to receive a net refund of $137 million—despite pretax U.S. profits of $4.3 billion. (Thanks to other forms of tax avoidance, it is paying only $13 million in federal taxes.) At the end of 2010, 34 percent of Boeing’s employees were covered by collective bargaining agreements, down from 47 percent a decade earlier.

While Boeing may be a particularly flagrant case, it is far from the only large corporation that dodges unions and taxes at the same time. Unfortunately, the movements addressing these two problems tend to operate separately from one another. Few of the many groups that have recently been chastising General Electric for its tax avoidance mentioned the company’s assaults on unions, while those criticizing Verizon for its anti-union practices rarely note its meager state and federal tax payments.

There are exceptions. With help from my colleagues and me at Good Jobs First (among others), the United Food and Commercial Workers has made Wal-Mart’s tax avoidance one of the issues in its campaign to reform the company and ultimately respect the collective bargaining rights of its workers.

Linking the two issues has been made more urgent by the fact that the Right is taking the offensive on both fronts. This year has seen more attacks on worker rights at the state level and more attempts to lighten the tax obligations of corporations (and the wealthy) at both the state and federal levels than at any other time in modern U.S. history. Beating back both of those campaigns is the only way to protect any semblance of a just economy.

Sinister Influences on Campus

Normally, someone who writes a blog is thrilled to see it mentioned in a national publication. But I had mixed feelings when a reference to the Dirt Diggers Digest appeared recently in the Washington Post. That’s because it came in an op-ed written by two people at a rightwing group engaged in a campaign that smells a lot like red-baiting.

Here’s the background: In March the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a rightwing think tank in Michigan, filed a state freedom of information request to see private e-mails of faculty and staff members at the labor studies programs of Michigan’s public universities. The demand covered all messages containing references to the recent controversies over public employee collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin (the Republican Party in that state had just made a similar demand regarding the e-mails of a University of Wisconsin history professor).

The FOIAs have generated an intense debate over academic freedom and activism by those working at state educational institutions. After the Washington Post published an editorial highly critical of the information requests, Mackinac’s president Joseph G. Lehman and senior editor Thomas S. Shull responded in the op-ed.

As part of their attempt to justify the e-mail fishing expedition, Lehman and Shull cite examples of what they depict as “inappropriately political” activities at Wayne State University’s Labor Studies Center.  These include the preparation of materials for labor activists working on living wage and privatization issues and helping “workers ‘research’ their employers through numerous links to such online resources as the ‘Dirt Diggers Digest.’”

It’s amazing how quickly Lehman and Shull pivot from a complaint about supposedly partisan activities to an attack on labor-oriented corporate research. Since when is it scandalous for labor educators to have close ties to unions and produce materials for their use? And is there something sinister about helping workers gain a better understanding of the companies that employ them?

The Mackinac Center apparently thinks so, and its FOIA request seems to be an attempt to make labor educators at public universities think twice about working closely with the labor movement. It is a ploy that goes hand in glove with the attack on public employee union rights in Michigan and numerous other states.

Unwilling to acknowledge an anti-union motivation, the Mackinac Center would have us believe that its concern is that the labor studies programs are being “sidetracked from [their] educational mission.” The implication is that educators who are too connected to outside groups lose their academic integrity.

Since the Mackinac Center folks are so worried about threats to academic independence, I recommend that they investigate a troubling situation at another taxpayer-supported educational program in their state: the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

Ross fosters close ties to corporate groups through its “executive education” program, which brags: “At Ross we go beyond connecting theory to practice. We connect theory to your practice so you can connect ideas to your organization’s strategy.” Ross faculty members assist corporations not only in the classroom but also in the boardroom. The school’s website describes its faculty as “leaders in helping executives and managers leverage cutting-edge knowledge to support real organizations” and it tells companies:  “You can take advantage of this resource by booking a Ross faculty expert to speak at your next board meeting, strategic planning session, or in-house workshop. Our Michigan Speakers Bureau delivers expertise in emerging markets, outsourcing, innovation, strategy, and more.”

Corporate infiltration can be seen throughout Ross’s programs. These include the Mitsui Life Financial Research Center, which was named after the big Japanese insurance company that provided “a generous endowment.” The Center sponsored a seminar last year on “Negotiating with Labor under Financial Distress.”

The Ross School also houses the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, named for real estate magnate Samuel Zell and his late partner Robert H. Lurie. After taking over the Tribune Company in 2007, Zell decimated the unionized staffs at its newspaper properties. Is that the kind of entrepreneurship the Institute is teaching?

Business influence also extends to individual professors, some of whom hold chairs endowed by specific corporations. The Ross faculty includes a Ford Motor Company Clinical Professor of Business Administration, a Dow Professor of Sustainable Science, a Bank One Corporation Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, and an Ernst & Young Professor of Accounting. Even those without endowed chairs seem to have succumbed to business-think. Associate Professor Aneel Karnani published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal last year entitled “The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility.”

And in perhaps its most shameless practice, the Ross School welcomes company “recruiters” to campus so they can enlist graduating students into the corporate movement. The Ross website, dropping all pretense of independence, tells these headhunters: “We greatly appreciate your ongoing commitment to Ross and look forward to working with you toward our mutual success.”

How can an educational institution that vows to achieve mutual success with an outside movement stay true to academic principles?

I trust that as soon as they are made aware of this situation, Mackinac Center staffers will demand to see the e-mails of all the corporate educators at the Ross School. Perhaps some of the research experts at Wayne State can help them make sense of the business connections.

What’s more likely is that they won’t get the joke.

Can Corporate Tax Dodgers Be Socially Responsible?

In much the same way that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker reinvigorated organized labor, General Electric is reigniting the movement for tax justice. The revelation in a March 25 New York Times front-page story that GE arranged things so that it owes nothing to the Internal Revenue Service on its $5 billion in 2010 U.S. operating profits—in fact, it expects to claim a refund of $3.2 billion—has sparked a firestorm of protest.

GE, of course, is not the only high-profile corporate tax dodger. The new US Uncut campaign is also targeting Bank of America, Verizon and FedEx. Other offenders include Google and Amazon.

What tends to get overlooked in the furor over big business tax avoidance is that the companies involved are usually ones that profess to adhere to the principles of corporate social responsibility.

Take General Electric. Like many other large firms, GE tries hard to present itself as a good corporate “citizen.” It has a website dedicated to the subject, and its board of directors has a Public Responsibilities Committee. GE also publishes an annual Citizenship Report.

In the 44 pages of that report, taxes are mentioned only in passing—and then mainly to cite the total amount GE pays to governments worldwide. It uses a figure of $23 billion, but that is over the course of a decade, whereas the other numbers in the report tend to be annual ones. Nor does GE compare the number to the more than $160 billion it earned in profits during the ten years.

GE goes on at length about its commitment to “Community Building,” stating that “Governments and national institutions are vital to progress. The quality of public institutions is therefore crucial.” Yet when it comes to explaining what it does to support a strong public sector, the company changes the subject. It highlights its charitable contributions, its investments in “human capital” and its involvement in environmental and trade policy issues.

GE, like many other companies, is able to get away with this because issues such as fair taxation and tax compliance are largely absent from the discourse of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Given the lack of a standardized definition of what is and is not socially responsible, corporations can pick and choose. We thus end up with cases such as Wal-Mart, which maintains its Neanderthal labor practices while touting environmental initiatives as evidence of its high level of ethicality.

Selective business ethics is especially problematic when it comes to taxes. Business apologists say that corporations have a duty to their shareholders to minimize tax payments and that there is nothing wrong with using all legal means to do so. But how far does that go? The Times pointed out that GE’s tax department has a staff of 975 dedicated to finding every last trick, and the company spends millions each year lobbying for even more loopholes.

What about Wal-Mart’s use of a device known as a captive real estate investment trust to avoid billions of dollars in state income taxes by essentially paying rent to itself and then deducting the cost? And how about those companies that create paper subsidiaries in offshore tax havens? A 2010 study published in the journal Corporate Governance found that even companies that move their legal headquarters to such havens go on claiming to be socially responsible.

Another obstacle is that the governments that are victimized by business tax dodging often fail to take strong measures, thus reinforcing the idea that it is not a significant offense. In the United States, criminal tax prosecutions of large corporations are few and far between. In a rare instance last December, Deutsche Bank paid $553 million in fines and admitted to criminal wrongdoing for helping U.S. customers make use of fraudulent tax shelters. Deutsche Bank, of course, professes a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility.

One place where CSR-spouting corporate tax dodgers are starting to be challenged is Britain. Over the past few years, human rights groups such as Christian Aid have criticized tax avoidance and evasion by transnational corporate operations in developing countries, arguing that these practices keep those nations stuck in a poverty trap. More recently, the UK Uncut campaign (which inspired US Uncut) has targeted tax dodging in Britain itself by corporations such as the European cellphone giant Vodafone. Cyberactivists hacked into Vodafone’s CSR website to post messages about the firm’s dubious tax practices.

Actions such as these help cut through the corporate obfuscation and make it clear that the failure of a large company to comply with a shared responsibility such as taxes is socially irresponsible.