There is an op-ed in Wednesday's New York Times on the push by some Republicans to extend a stimulus tax incentive, a "bonus depreciation" provision that allows businesses to deduct the full purchase price of qualifying equipment, essentially deducting it as a business expense (like a luncheon or business travel) up to, in some cases in the past, 50% of the value of the equipment. The provision is part of a tax extenders package in H.R. 5771 which passed the House on Thursday 378-46. That is a bipartisan vote, but make no mistake: it was House Republicans that have been pushing for this provision. In comparison, the maximum deduction for higher education expenses would be capped at $4,000 for an individual whose maximum adjusted gross income can be no more than $65,000 (or $130,000 for joint filers). $500,000 for business equipment, $4,000 for higher education. Qualifying property includes vehicles heavier than 6,000 lbs., off-the-shelf software, office furniture, equipment, and property not part of a structure.
However, there is something else that is moving forward as part of H.R. 5771. Even before you get to bonus depreciation, under section 179 of the Internal Revenue Code businesses can take a first-year deduction of up to $25,000. That means that business, whatever and whoever they are, can expense up to $25,000 of equipment right away. The limit had been, as part of a 2008 economic stimulus package lifted up to $250,000 on capital equipment having a total value of no more than $800,000. That generous limit expired, and House Republicans are now seeking to lift that limit from the current level of $25,000 up to $500,000. That's a total of $1 million for business capital, $4,000 for higher education, in case you were keeping score.
There is actually a website, Section179.org, that spells everything out for anybody, most prominently small businesses, to figure out exactly how the bonus depreciation works. It is not complicated. For qualifying capital equipment, you can basically expense anything up to $25,000, which becomes $1 million if the House package becomes law.
What is the effect of these tax provisions? These provisions have gone up and down over time, and Eric Zwick and James Mahon have looked at these provisions and their effects on business investment, and how changes in these rates over time have changed investment from year to year. They found that bonus depreciation raised investment by 17.3 percent from 2001 to 2004 and 29.5 percent from 2008 to 2010. They carry out a number of robustness tests, leading them to conclude that these provisions really do work. In fact, insofar as the up-and-down movement of the limits of section 179 and bonus depreciation create "kinks" in the optimal investment levels of firms, firms are observed to be investing right up to the kinks, in effect taking full advantage of these provisions. Firms tend not to take full advantage if they do not have the ordinary income against which to take these deductions (though bonus depreciation has, in past years, been used to create losses which can be carried forward to offset income in future years).
That said, what kind of capital are we subsidizing, and what good is it doing? Even if we ignore the distributional impacts of this disparity between funding business equipment and higher education, what good is this increased business investment doing? This we do not know.