America's fiscal situation is a shambles, and our marketplace is fraught with dysfunction. We've let dirty dealers get away with far too much. Many of those corrupt players are the "corporate people" whose wallets were loosened by the Supreme Court Citizens United case two years ago.
We could define "dirty players" in many ways, but one of the ways our market is distorted is by the torrent of shareholder capital that is deployed in an extremely unproductive way: corporations lobbying for political advantage in an increasingly false marketplace.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Citizens for Tax Justice recently released a report outing what they call "The Dirty Thirty." According to the Representation Without Taxation report, these 30 Fortune 500 companies spend big bucks on lobbying, all the while taking advantage of loopholes to dodge paying billions in taxes.
The report identified 280 profitable Fortune 500 firms that paid an effective tax rate of 18.5%, about half of the statutory 35% corporate tax rate, and raked in $223 billion in tax subsidies. Those companies shelled out $2 billion on lobbying related to taxation and other issues between 2008 and 2010.
The "Dirty Thirty" were particularly aggressive at both lobbying and avoiding taxes. These 30 companies took $10.6 billion in tax rebates and avoided the $67.9 billion in taxes they would have paid had they been subject to the 35% tax rate.
Hey, big spender
The "Dirty Thirty" includes some well-known consumer names and highly recognized stocks. Let's take a look at a few.
Washington, D.C.-based utility Pepco
Pepco happens to reside at the very top of the Dirty Thirty list. Pepco shelled out $3.8 million in lobbying dollars while enjoying a negative 57.6% tax rate. Having also enjoyed $816.7 million in tax subsidies, it generated $882 million in profits. You'd think its service wouldn't stink so bad given the cushy deal it has at the expense of everyday Americans, right?
GE landed in the tax avoidance spotlight last year, and defended itself by saying it did pay taxes, and plenty of them, too ($2.7 billion). It didn't clarify that those were worldwide taxes. Here at home, maybe GE brings good things to living, all while living relatively scot-free.
The list included some big, big spenders. Verizon
Dirty stocks, deteriorating businesses
The Dirty Thirty report focuses on the ironic correlation between the millions some corporate managements are willing to spend on lobbying to lower tax burdens versus the millions in tax savings they generate. The irony is that both of these are uses of companies' shareholder capital, and investors will defend one use while decrying the other.
In reality, lobbying's a negative for truly free-market-minded investors who care more about owning truly good businesses than short-term, stock-price machinations (and distortions).
Although many modern investors may have swallowed the line that lobbying's an inevitable expense of doing business (and taxation is bad, bad, bad!), the truth is, lobbying at its heart probably indicates a reality nobody wants to talk about: shoddy, noncompetitive business models that may not enrich shareholders or true, American, economic well-being, even without the tax-dodging component. Call me crazy, but maybe the millions in lobbying expenditures would be better spent on good old-fashioned R&D and real, job-creating innovations.
Earlier this week, MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan, originator of the Get the Money Out of politics campaign and author of the new book Greedy Bastards, came to speak here at Fool HQ. One statement Ratigan made should resonate with all self-respecting shareholders: Lobbying is actually a sign of a deteriorating business that's not functioning well on a core level. See a related clip below: