Jacob Sullum

According to the White House website, President Obama enjoys the comfort and convenience of two "highly customized" Boeing 747s with "4,000 square feet of floor space on three levels," including " a medical suite," two galleys that "can feed 100 people at a time" and "an extensive suite for the President that features a large office, lavatory, and conference room" -- all at taxpayer expense. But as he proved at his press conference on Monday, where he once again inveighed against "these egregious loopholes that are benefiting corporate jet owners," Obama cannot stop complaining about other people's fancy airplanes.

After all, children's lives are at stake. "You go talk to your constituents," the president recalled telling Republican leaders last month, "and ask them are they willing to compromise their kids' safety so that some corporate jet owner continues to get a tax break. And I'm pretty sure what the answer would be." Me, too: "Huh?" There is a legitimate point here about the unfair, irrational complexity of the tax code, but it is buried beneath so much cheap demagoguery that getting to it may require a backhoe.

Obama objects to the fact that owners of corporate jets can write off the cost of their purchases over five years instead of the seven required for commercial aircraft. If this policy continues, he warned at a press conference two weeks ago, "it means that food inspection might be compromised," along with college scholarships, medical research, the National Weather Service and Medicare.

The revenue to be gained from a slower depreciation schedule for corporate jets, writes The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, is "so small the White House could not even provide an estimate." Republican congressional staffers say it amounts to about $3 billion over a decade, or $300 million a year, which is 0.02 percent of this year's budget deficit. If Obama can fund food inspection, college scholarships, medical research, the National Weather Service and Medicare for that amount, he should have no trouble balancing the budget without raising taxes.

The whole point of Obama's rants against corporate jets, of course, is to shame Republicans into going along with tax increases by portraying them as fat cats' lapdogs, salivating at the thought of balancing the budget on the backs of uneducated, untreated food-poisoning victims who don't even know whether the sun will come out tomorrow because the government can't afford to pay for meteorologists anymore. Still, he's right that there's no reason to assume corporate aircraft degrade faster than commercial aircraft. For that matter, why pretend that planes fall apart after seven years, when they actually last for decades?

Congress wrote those depreciation schedules into law in 1986, leaving it to the Treasury Department to adjust them as appropriate. Two years later, Congress revoked that authority, presumably due to some well-placed lobbying.

Yet on three separate occasions, Obama himself has championed even faster depreciation for business aircraft in the name of stimulating the economy. The most recent law, signed by Obama in December, allows businesses to write off the entire cost of planes purchased between Sept. 8, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2011, in the first year.

Aircraft manufacturers, whose special treatment accounts for something like 0.03 percent of all tax breaks, are understandably dismayed at their quick transformation from engines of job creation into accomplices of corporate villains. Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, complains that "the president has inexplicably chosen to vilify and mischaracterize business aviation -- an industry that is critical for citizens, companies and communities across the U.S., and one that can play a central role in the economic recovery he says he wants to promote."

Everyone who benefits from a tax break has a justification for his. But if Obama were serious about tax reform, he would not only reject such special pleading, he would renounce the use of the tax code for economic and social engineering, which creates the "egregious loopholes" that suddenly bother him.

 


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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