Sunday, May 11, 2008

Are oil companies overtaxed?

I talked with someone today who seemed to think so. Exxon earned $40 billion last year, but according to him, they paid about $120 billion in taxes.

That sounded a bit far-fetched to me, so I discussed it with Google. Google pointed out that, in 2007, Exxon earned $40B in after-tax revenues, after paying $30B in taxes. I asked for specifics, and it obliged like the obedient, loyal, golden retriever superintelligence that it is. I asked Google, "If they owed $30B in taxes, why did they only pay $10.6 billion of that out of pocket, with the rest socked away under 'deferred income tax liabilities'?" Google politely redirected me to a video of a sleepy cat. It was adorable, but also Google's way of telling me that I'm asking questions way above its pay grade.

I don't have the financial understanding to say which number is more accurate. But I do know that ExxonMobil claims a 32% "return on average capital employed." Does that mean that deferring for even one year is effectively a 32% tax cut? I'm sure it's far more complex than that.

Meanwhile, Google was pointing out how the increases in fuel economy over the last few decades makes gasoline a much better bargain. The blog post repeats a claim that gas today moves cars 50% further. In other words, with the fuel efficiencies of 1973 in place today, it would be as though oil was $172/barrel. Since it was a free-marketeer's blog, I left a reminder to thank their neighborhood meddling bureaucrat, and remind them that if 2020's fuel standards were in effect today, it would save hundreds of billions every year.

Ever loyal, Google brought me this report of about $2.5B/year worth of tax exemptions to the oil companies. I don't think that those loopholes even scratch the surface. Every one of the 1.8B barrels we extract from the U.S. every year lived under land that was at one point considered the sole property of the United States (or at least the white, bewigged predecessors of said entity). Much of that land was given away before we knew oil was important, or before anyone realized that said commodity existed under said parcels. But even today, a lot of oil comes off federally-owned (read, you-owned) lands, yet oil companies pay little or nothing for the privilege of extracting it. If America was actually acting like we owned the oil (rather than merely providing the illusion of technical ownership), we'd all be raking it in.

I also consider the excise tax on gasoline a big windfall for the oil industry. Think about it. Most of the tax is spent on roads, so the government is effectively taking the money from us and using it to expand the market for petroleum products. Sure, we benefit in the able-to-get-from-point-a-to-point-b sense. But without roads, the market for oil is minuscule.

In a weird twist, it's even worse in Houston. One of Tom DeLay's last acts in his all-to-unbrief political life was to forbid Houston from using even a penny of excise tax money for mass transit. Honestly, did that man have a single decent bone in his entire body? No wonder he rose to the top of the Republican Party.

Thank you, Google, for keeping me up two hours later than I'd intended. Now here's your chew toy.

The Historical Jesus

Argument breaks out on Internet. Film at 11. I used to spend a lot more time arguing about these sorts of things, and a lot of the details are a little fuzzy these days. I've read a couple of books that claimed Jesus was an entirely mythological construct, and never found them terribly compelling. I read a couple that claimed that the Gospels are perfectly historical, and Jesus did exactly the things they say he did, dammit. Those were laughable.

Between the two poles, there is this fuzzy middle ground where we can be pretty sure that Jesus existed, but we can't be sure enough of his doings or sayings to base our lives on them. Most Christians admit that their religion requires a leap of faith at some point, but I'm arguing that you have to make a big first leap in order to get to the point where you can make the second leap.

These questions used to be a big part of my life. Not anymore. I did my brain dump, and I probably won't contribute further to that discussion.