I can’t quite bring myself to call it the Inflation Reduction Act. One thing I have learned from experience is how hard it is to judge such bills upfront. For instance, I just learned that the electric vehicle tax credits do not currently apply to any electric vehicle whatsoever, nor will they obviously apply to any electric vehicle to be produced in the near future. Now the United States might take a larger role in battery production, or perhaps the law/regulation will be modified — don’t assume these standards will collapse. Still, the provisions are going to evolve. Or maybe there is a modest chance that provision of the bill simply will never kick in.
I don’t know.
How about the corporate minimum tax provisions? It sounds so simple to address unfairness in this way, and how much opposition will there be to a provision that might cover only 150 or so companies? But a lot of the incentives for new investment will be taken away, including new investment by highly successful companies. (You can get your tax bill down by making new investments, for instance, and that is why Amazon has paid relatively low taxes in many years.) Most of the companies covered are expected to be manufacturing, and didn’t we hear from the Democratic Party (and indeed many others) some while ago that manufacturing jobs possess special economic virtues? Furthermore, some of the tax incentives for green energy investments will be taken away. Has anyone done and published a cost-benefit analysis here? That is a serious question (comments are open!), not a rhetorical one.
Here are some other concerns (NYT):
“The evidence from the studies of outcomes around the Tax Reform Act of 1986 suggest that companies responded to such a policy by altering how they report financial accounting income — companies deferred more income into future years,” Michelle Hanlon, an accounting professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Senate Finance Committee last year. “This behavioral response poses serious risks for financial accounting and the capital markets.”
Other opponents of the new tax have expressed concerns that it would give more control over the U.S. tax base to the Financial Accounting Standards Board, an independent organization that sets accounting rules.
“The potential politicization of the F.A.S.B. will likely lead to lower-quality financial accounting standards and lower-quality financial accounting earnings,” Ms. Hanlon and Jeffrey L. Hoopes, a University of North Carolina professor, wrote in a letter to members of Congress last year that was signed by more than 260 accounting academics.
How bad is that? I do not know. Do you? My intuition is that the book profits concept cannot handle so much stress. By the way, kudos to NYT and Alan Rappeport for doing that piece. It is balanced but does not hold back on the skeptical side.
And here’s one matter I haven’t seen anyone mention: the climate part of the bill, and indeed most of the accompanying science and chips bill, assume in a big way that private sector investment is deficient in solving various social problems and needs some serious subsidy and direction.
Now the direction of that investment is a separate matter, but when it comes to the subsidy do you recall Kenneth Arrow’s classic argument that the private sector does not invest enough in risk-taking? Private investors see their private risk as higher than the actual social risk of the investment. This argument implies subsidies for investments, as much of the rest of the bill and its companion bill provide, not additional taxes on investment. This same kind of argument lies behind Operation Warp Speed, which most people supported, right?
And yet I see everyone presenting the new taxes on investment in an entirely blithe manner, ignoring the fact that the rest of the bill(s) implies private investment needs to be subsidized or at least taxed less.
Overall the ratio of mood affiliation and also politics in this discussion, to actual content, makes me nervous. The bills went through a good deal of uncertainty, and so a significant portion of the intelligentsia has been talking them up. Biden after all needs some victories, right? And at some point the green energy movement needs some major legislative trophies, right? What I’d like to see instead is a more open and frank discussion of the actual analytics.
It is very good when a top economist such as Larry Summers has real policy influence, in this case on Joe Manchin. But part of that equilibrium is that other economists start watching their words, knowing some other Democratic Senator might fall off the bandwagon. There is Sinema, Bernie Sanders has been making noise and complaining, someone else might have tried to extract some additional rents, and so on.
The net result is that you are not getting a very honest and open discussion of what is likely to prove a major piece of legislation.