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How worried should we be that Boeing argues it should get a tax break for performing safety tests on its new planes? This is the argument the corporation seems to have made at an IRS hearing on January 8 and in comments submitted (sorry, subscription only) to the agency about proposed regulations governing tax breaks for research.

Tax breaks designed to encourage research can only be said to be effective if they result in their recipients conducting research that they would not otherwise conduct. Boeing seems to argue that this includes safety testing of airplanes. But isn’t this something that Boeing must do anyway?

On one hand, if Boeing is not naturally inclined, in the absence of a tax incentive, to make its planes safe, you might want to consider that before you book your next flight. On the other hand, if we trust that the FAA and comparable foreign agencies have stringent safety requirements, then why does Boeing need a tax incentive to do what is required by law?

In its comments on the regulations, Boeing criticizing a proposed “shrinking-back rule” that would provide the research tax break only for companies that develop and test individual components of an aircraft rather than those who put together and test the entire aircraft (which is what Boeing does). Another issue Boeing raises is whether it can receive the break for multiple pilot models (prototype planes, for example) for safety testing.

Boeing argues that “in the aerospace industry, companies such as Boeing that have built tens of thousands of aircraft through the years know from experience that they need multiple pilot models for testing. Indeed, without multiple pilot models, a failure may not be correctly identified as a design problem or a unique problem encountered by the pilot model because of, for example, a defect in materials.”

To which the sensible response seems to be, so what? Are we supposed to believe that Boeing will not do the appropriate safety testing if it does not receive a tax incentive for doing so? Indeed, Boeing goes on at length about the FAA safety standards it must meet through testing.

Firms are allowed to deduct their business expenses each year, except that capital expenses (expenditures to acquire assets that generate income in the future) must usually be deducted over a number of years to reflect their ongoing usefulness. In 1954, Congress enacted section 174 of the tax code, which relaxed the normal capitalization rules by allowing firms to deduct immediately their costs of research. This immediate deduction is the specific tax break addressed by the proposed regulation that is causing Boeing so much angst.

But that’s not all that’s at stake. Businesses must meet the requirements of section 174 (and some additional requirements) to get an even bigger break, the research tax credit, which was first enacted in 1981.  Of those corporations that make public how much they claim in research tax credits, Boeing is near the top of the list. This is illustrated in the table, which was published in our recent report on the many problems with the research tax credit.

You really have to hand it to Boeing. The company has managed to have billions in profits for a decade while paying nothing in federal or state corporate income taxes over that period. Yet, President Obama argues that companies that use tax breaks to shift operations and profits offshore ought to pay more U.S. taxes and that the revenue “should go towards lowering taxes for companies like Boeing that choose to stay and hire here in the United States of America.” Likewise, after Washington State recently gave Boeing the biggest state tax break in history, other states like Missouri still seem to think they can lure the corporation by lavishing it with even more tax breaks. At this rate, Boeing could probably threaten that its planes will explode midair if it doesn’t get more tax breaks, and the Treasury Department and Congress probably would provide them.