What’s Yours is Theirs

Economics, Politics

Yesterday, the Senate Energy Committee held hearings about the offshore oil rig that exploded and has to date released somewhere upwards of 4 million gallons of oil. Senators grilled executives from BP (who operated the well), Halliburton (who performed maintenance to the well), and Transocean (who dug the well). Most of the media reports on it mention the blame game that occurred, with each company blaming the other. But what struck me was what Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash) said in her questioning of Lamar McKay, president of BP America.

McKay: We have said exactly what we mean: We’re going to pay all legitimate claims.
Cantwell: So harm to the fishing industry, both short term and long term, you’re going to pay?
McKay:
We’re going to pay all legitimate claims.
Cantwell: If it’s an impact on business lost from tourism, you’re going to pay.
McKay: We’re going to pay all legitimate claims.
Cantwell: To the state and local governments for lost tax revenue, you’re going to pay.
McKay: Question mark.

What happened was an accident. The investigation will determine whether it was due to negligence or not, but if we are to believe that the evil greedy oil companies are in fact as evil and greedy as some politicians and pundits say they are, then clearly there was no intent to release millions of barrels of oil that could have been sold instead for a handsome profit.

Cantwell’s initial questioning is on the mark. Presuming that it should not be the government’s job to pay unemployment insurance claims for people who lost their jobs because of the oil spill (which I agree with), Cantwell wants to make sure that BP is going to compensate those who were affected by the oil spill. McKay’s refrain of “We’re going to pay all legitimate claims” gets boring quickly, but he really has no choice. He can’t say they’ll pay every single possible claim or BP will see more fraudulent claims than Medicare. There has to be a legitimate legal process by which people make a claim for damages and provide evidence of their injury. It’s the last part of her questioning that strikes me as odd and I don’t know what to make of it. Here it is again:

Cantwell: To the state and local governments for lost tax revenue, you’re going to pay.
McKay: Question mark.

(I have to say that I love McKay’s answer here. Instead of saying “I don’t know” or “We’ll have to see about that,” he says “Question mark.” The only thing I would have liked more is if, in response to a question about whether BP will pay all legitimate claims, he would have said, “True dat.”)

Now, there are two different things that Cantwell could mean by “tax revenue” and, without knowing her intent, I don’t know whether she’s simply ignorant or a tyrant.

Scenario 1: Cantwell is talking about the lost tax revenue on tourism and fishing.

If this is what she meant, the answer is simple: Cantwell is simply uninformed about the tax implications of legal cases and settlements. Since 1996, a legal settlement or court award is considered ordinary taxable income unless it is a personal injury claim, which this is not. Damages for interference with business operations are taxable income. Any payments by BP to businesses affected by the oil spill would be treated as taxable income and state and local governments would get their money that way. (If this were not the case, two companies could both avoid taxes by simply taking turns suing each other and settling out of court.) Senator Cantwell need not worry about the government getting its money…although she might want to look up the law before grilling people to avoid looking so ignorant.

Scenario 2: Cantwell is talking about the lost tax revenue on oil production income.

This one is much more ominous. Oil companies have made a tidy profit in the last few years. Politicians like Hillary Clinton wanted to “take” those profits (20 seconds in) and use them for causes they deem worthy. Representative Maxine Waters would take those profits and “socialize” them. (Her statement is at 1:15 in and I don’t know what’s scarier: that she wants the oil industry to be run by a government that can’t balance a budget, or that it takes her 10 seconds to find the words for government takeover; I think it’s also a bit of a Freudian slip when she says “socialize” instead of the appropriate word, “nationalize.”) One could interpret Cantwell’s statement as in implication that the government is entitled to those profits whether BP actually makes them or not, as I initially did when I heard her words.

If this is what Cantwell meant, it’s a harbinger of bad things to come. Almost as bad as Obama saying that things just work better when we “spread the wealth around.” Unfortunately, in the creeping expansion of government that has happened in the last two years, this kind of thing is all too familiar. The government feels entitled to your money. With the current federal budget deficit and many states in deficit, they need your money. Only if you’re “rich” of course; the poor shouldn’t have to pay any taxes at all and should just get free government. Except if they smoke. That’s bad, and since we’re going to pay for everyone’s health care, we have to punish those evil smokers, even the poor ones. Or if they choose not to buy a federal HHS Director-approved health insurance policy and instead choose to buy a catastrophic plan and save the rest of their money to pay for their own regular medical care. Then we have to tax them because, even though that strategy might save them money and not adversely affect anyone, they aren’t doing what the geniuses in Washington feel is best.

This week, the Minnesota legislature voted to raise income taxes. (Again, don’t worry — it’s only those rich people. I’m starting to wonder what we would do if we didn’t have them around.) City governments are raising property taxes, fines and fees. Pennsylvania issues a commercial threatening people who have not paid taxes that they will be hunted down and found. Some local governments are actually charging you if you have an automobile accident and the police have to come to the scene.

There is a pattern here.

Gone are the days of limited government and individual responsibility. You are not allowed to determine how much salt you can put in food. (If you’re a fan of gluttony, watch Man vs. Food now while you can; in a few years, most of the featured meals will be illegal and the show will be gone.) The President says that “at some point, you’ve made enough money” even if you’ve made it legally. And now, depending on how Cantwell’s statement is interpreted, the government may be entitled to the fruits of your labor whether you actually produce or not. From each according to his ability, indeed.

What’s yours is not yours. The government simply allows you to have some of it.

At least for now.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Nils Badrul  •  May 12, 2010 @1:02 pm

    Here’s the video of his reaction to the question…about 55 seconds in

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDW27G9gnPQ

  2. Zach B.  •  May 19, 2010 @9:00 am

    After I watched that clip I have a feeling he will be in front of them again defending what is a legitimate claim. The claims will most likely still be in court and he will have to respond the claim is still in process no comment, which will go no where.

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