The United States is now officially in high dudgeon over sweetheart loans that European governments might make in the future to finance a new airplane that Airbus is thinking of developing.
According to U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, Europe just won't play fair. It is unwilling to stop subsidizing its industrial champions, which are stealing business away from Boeing and other superior American companies, which, as we all know, are much too self-reliant to run to Washington whenever they can't cut the mustard on global markets.
Unfortunately for Zoellick, just as he was delivering his lecture on the need for a level playing field, Congress was unveiling the final details of a corporate tax bill so laden with subsidies, and so infused with government industrial policy, that any Eurocrat would be proud to call it his own.
Ironically, the original purpose of the bill was to repeal $5 billion a year in export subsidies originally put into the tax code for the benefit of Boeing and other major U.S. exporters that were repeatedly ruled illegal under global trading rules. But by the time the corporate lobby had worked its magic, the offending subsidies were only to be phased out over two years, replaced by a cornucopia of new tax breaks providing three times as much corporate tax relief.
Some of the beneficiaries of this largess -- NASCAR racetracks, restaurant owners, foreign gamblers, engineering and construction firms, bow and arrow makers, Hollywood production companies -- have already been widely identified.
Others are less well known, such as small businesses that are allowed to avoid paying any corporate tax at all by organizing as "subchapter S" corporations. Now, the definition of "small" will include those with as many as 100 different shareholders, with family members from as many as six generations treated as "one" shareholder for tax purposes. You can only imagine how oil drillers, corporate farmers and wealthy families will use this provision to shield income and inheritances from taxation.
Then there are new and extended tax breaks for all those Midwest farmers who jumped on the ethanol and biodiesel gravy train, including a nifty provision transforming tax credits into direct payments for those who already pay no taxes. And let's not forget largess for timber producers, tobacco farmers and "small" oil producers not satisfied with $53-a-barrel oil.
And let's not overlook the goodies put in for railroads already flush with after-tax profits, which now will be exempt from paying the federal excise tax on fuel and get a special credit for maintaining their tracks.
It remains a mystery why Congress feels such a need to reduce corporate tax burdens even further. Despite what you hear from politicians and the National Association of Manufacturers, there is precious little economic evidence linking reductions in corporate profit taxes to job creation. Struggling firms don't have profits, while successful ones with ample cash flow are likely to base hiring decisions on whether the new employees will generate new profits.
Furthermore, as Martin Sullivan has pointed out in a brilliant series of articles in Tax Notes, banks, drug companies and other multinational corporations have been fabulously successful in lowering their tax bite by shifting profits to offshore tax havens. But rather than put a stop to these tax dodges, Congress now proposes to reward them by providing a tax holiday for repatriated profits. Meanwhile, other provisions that claim to "simplify" and "reform" the treatment of foreign income will wind up costing the Treasury several billion dollars a year.
This is largely a Republican bill reflecting the majority party's tax-cutting philosophy and increasingly strong corporate ties. But it says something about the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of congressional Democrats -- and their lack of political imagination -- that they haven't rallied behind a Senate filibuster of this legislative abomination. If, at a time of record federal budget deficits, a self-proclaimed "party of the people" can't take a principled stand against the biggest corporate tax giveaway in a generation, maybe it doesn't deserve to be the majority party.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.