Yes, there are lots of tax loopholes! You can hardly step anywhere in the personal or corporate tax codes without falling into a loophole. Most every tax break was created in the name of helping a good cause (e.g. electric cars) or encouraging people or corporations to buy of something (e.g. homes or ethanol). Still, the loopholes reduce tax revenue and add great complexity to the tax code.
You can see for yourself how ridiculous the tax code is simply by looking at IRS Publication 946 at http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p946.pdf. Be forewarned: it is large .pdf file. Do not blame the IRS, they are simply enacting what various Congresses and Presidents have put into law. Econscius thinks these 118 pages, which merely cover tax rules for depreciation, are a microcosm of what is wrong with the tax code. These 118 pages are a like a few drops of water in the lake of tax complexity, too. But I assume most readers will be perfectly fine with just one helping of accountant-speak.
What is Depreciation? When a company buys an asset like a railroad car, it is not allowed to expense the $100,000 cost right away. The cost is expensed in little pieces over its theoretical ‘useful life’ of, according to the IRS table, 15 years. Or seven years if the company is using an accelerated depreciation method.
What is Accelerated Depreciation? In order to encourage companies to purchase more assets, e.g. more airplanes, the Tax Code includes the ability to depreciate many assets more quickly than their ‘useful life’. A 15 year asset may be deducted in seven years.
From a taxpayer’s standpoint, accelerating depreciation is valuable. Increasing your expenses today means less income and less income means less tax paid. In theory, the government gets all the tax money in the long run but the fact that the deductions are sped up is valuable because of what we call ‘the time value of money’: because of inflation, a dollar today is worth more than dollar five years from now.
I challenge anyone, Left or Right, to skim through the 118 pages and tell me the tax code is not unnecessarily complex. There are loopholes aplenty, lying right before your eyes.
On pages 25-28, we find the Gulf Opportunity Zone break, enacted after Hurricane Katrina. There’s the Qualified Cellulosic Biofuel PLant Property benefit on page 28. There are extremely generous accelerated depreciation rules on electric cars on page 66. There are special depreciation rules for Indian Reservations on pages 38-39. Fruit and nut trees and vines are covered on page 42.
Table B-1, which runs from page 103 to page 112 is a fine print example of tax loopholes. You will notice there are different columns as there are different depreciation methods. We can skip the mind-numbing complexity of GDS (MACRS) vs. ADS depreciation to make a few simple points:
(1.) Whenever the GDS and ADS depreciation recovery periods are different, we are really talking about a tax break. The different method means a potential tax break because companies can depreciate more quickly than the true ‘useful life’ of the asset. When you look through the IRS Publication 946, you see how most classes of assets do, in fact, have some sort of accelerated depreciation option.
(2.) Are so many classifications really necessary? There are special depreciation rules for Cable TV-Microwave Systems, Railroad Track, Railroad Wharves and Docks, Manufacture of Foundry Equipment, manufacture of Leather and Leather Products, Sawing of dimensional Stock from Logs, Manufacture of Textile Yarns, and the ever-important Cotton Ginning Assets.
My personal favorite depreciation category is found on page 105: “Any Horse That Is More Than 12 Years Old At The Time It Is Placed In Service And That Is Neither A Race Horse Nor A Horse Described In Class 0.1222.” Got that?
There are special tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. Surely you have heard of them before. One of the breaks was enacted in 2004 to encourage companies to manufacture in the U.S. That break lets most companies deduct 9% of profits from domestic manufacturing. Oil and gas companies were classified as manufacturers, but their deduction was capped at 6%.  President Obama’s 2009 Stimulus package included an accelerated depreciation tax break for corporate jets on the theory it would encourage corporations to buy more jets, employing more Americans .  President Obama often talks as if the accelerated depreciation for aviation and oil & gas drilling were the only tax breaks in the tax code.
The oil and gas industry breaks are surely there, but ethanol, solar and wind actually enjoy far more favorable tax treatment. Anyone looking at this IRS Publication 946 will see how disingenuous it is for politicians to focus on oil when almost every industry seems to have its hand in the till, even highly profitable areas like computers.
Without question, an awful lot of time goes into interpreting and complying with the tax code. Corporations and interest groups lobby for their narrow interests within the tax code.
How do we fix this? A flatter, simpler tax code with universal rules and few, if any, special deductions would be a place to start. Ask everyone to give up their favorite tax breaks and we will all be better off; call it mutual tax break disarmament. The US corporate tax rate in the highest amongst developed nations; why would we not want to lower the rates, drop the loopholes and end up with the same amount of revenue but with a lot less work? While there are some issues with Herman Cain’s proposed “9-9-9 plan”, it is a bold attempt to throw out the old tax code and start afresh. Ideas like that would help get rid of monstrosities like IRS Publication 946.
Pictures from Wikipedia Commons. IRS html from IRS link above.
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