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Reuters

This opinion piece originally appeared at Reuters.com.

If President Barack Obama can persuade Congress to reduce the corporate income tax rate to 28 percent from 35 percent, he will move tax rates closer to what other modern countries charge.

But his plan to treat “manufacturing” as a special category, with a 25 percent tax rate, brings us to what I call Obama’s hamburger problem.

The problem is how to define manufacturing. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, I know manufacturing when I see it; I just don’t know how to define it in tax law.

Assembling automobiles is considered manufacturing. So what about assembling two hot protein discs with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions — all on a sesame seed bun?

The notion of hamburger-making as manufacturing may seem silly, a bit like the 1981 U.S. Agriculture Department proposal to classify ketchup as a vegetable for school lunches. But classifying activities as manufacturing or not becomes crucial if manufacturers pay taxes at a reduced rate.

Imagine all the high-paying jobs Obama’s plan would create. Companies of all kinds will want to hire more tax accountants and lawyers making the case their client’s business activity is manufacturing. These are not the sort of additional jobs America needs.

There could also be more work for economists, engineers and historians whose expertise would be tapped for creative ways to expand the definition of manufacturing. We have the prototype for the reduced manufacturer’s tax rate in the Domestic Production Activities Deduction, a law implemented in 2005 which comes with a plethora of complex eligibility rules that already create more work for tax professionals.

Scrutinizing tax returns to determine what is and is not manufacturing would further require a diversion of IRS auditors, lawyers and specialists from the more important job of hunting for calculated tax evaders. Inevitably there would be litigation aplenty, a boon to trial lawyers but a drag on the economy.

Building an automobile obviously involves manufacturing. Rocks must be refined to turn their useful elements into steel and aluminum. Much of the added value will be in the engine and transmission, where steels made with special alloys must be heat-treated and machined to endure enormous, and rapid, twisting forces. Increasingly cars are built with plastics, sophisticated chemical compounds that must be created from base materials and then molded or extruded.

But should mere assembly of an automobile qualify as manufacturing? Does fitting the already manufactured pieces together qualify as manufacturing? And what if the parts were all manufactured in, say, Japan while the only activity in the United States was assembling them into a whole?

Would tax law define manufacturing as the process of making a car as a whole? Or would companies lobby for laws that break it into parts with profits earned at different stages of production taxed at different rates? Would that, in turn, mean accounting practices that load costs onto one stage of production to take profits at the 25 percent rate and losses, such as an assembly line, at the 28 percent rate?

Imagine a car company that reports a $200 million profit to shareholders. Now imagine that it reports a $300 million manufacturing profit taxed at 25 percent and a $100 million assembly line loss at the 28 percent general corporate rate. The company’s profit would still be $200 million, but its blended tax rate would be just 23.5 percent.

Hamburgers may seem like pure assembly, but a case can be made that they are more like manufacturing than assembling a car from finished parts made overseas.

Your local hamburger joint starts with raw meat, fresh or frozen. If it comes in lumps then someone must make the meat into uniform discs or squares. Then the protein must be fried, grilled or broiled. Only then can the meat, lettuce and whatnot be assembled.

Eight years ago the Bush administration used this very example to warn about the unintended consequences of tax incentives for manufacturing.

The 2004 Economic Report of the President asked, “when a fast-food restaurant sells a hamburger, for example, is it providing a ‘service’ or is it combining inputs to ‘manufacture’ a product?”

The comment, put in a box on its own page to draw attention to the issue, also noted that “sometimes, seemingly subtle differences can determine whether an industry is classified as manufacturing. For example, mixing water and concentrate to produce soft drinks is classified as manufacturing. However, if that activity is performed at a snack bar, it is considered a service.”

Taxing different corporate activities at different rates is a bad idea unless you think we need more national income spent on gaming the tax system. Let’s not go there.

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