CORPORATE WELFARE

Congress is busy scaling back, even getting rid of welfare payments to folks like unemployed teen mothers and hungry schoolkids. But it's also under pressure to restore benefits to a different class of beleaguered constituents--restaurant owners. Before the mid-1980s, businesses could deduct 100 percent of their meal costs, as long as the meal was a setting for business activity. Clients would get wined and dined, and company accountants would write off the tab as a business expense.

But over the past decade, a revised tax code has cut the meal deduction to 50 percent. Businesses can now write off only $50 on a $100 check.

Restaurant owners have been howling about the cut, arguing, not without reason, that pruning the deduction has reduced businesses' dining-out incentive, and cut into their profits. Now, they may be gearing up to lobby Congress to restore the full write-off. In a recent issue of its trade publication, Hot Off the Grille, the Arizona Restaurant Association advanced some reasons the 100 percent deduction deserves consideration. It argues that "the restaurant business meal is a viable format for conducting business." I'm sure it can be. But even if you discount the potential for abuse of the system, I'm still not convinced by the logic. What social benefit, apart from lining the pockets of restaurant owners and tickling the palates of executives, derives from subsidizing meals? Does anyone truly believe that deducting meal costs somehow generates business activity and increases our national wealth?

It seems to me this deduction is not so much a formula for increasing the gross domestic product as it is a scheme to redistribute it.

I was also befuddled by another ARA line of thought. The organization says that "as businesses implement more cutbacks and more efficient operations, the management staff has no available time for meetings and must use the lunch hour to conduct business." In fact, because of business pressures, "many management level employees have foregone the lunch hour and indeed work overtime into the evening hours and start before breakfast." So, the argument runs, "scheduling meetings during meals makes sense [and] deducting the full cost of the meal should be a legitimate cost of doing business."

Let's see if I have this straight. Paring costs to the bone, businesses are laying off workers and placing ever greater demands on those who escape the ax. These overworked employees, run ragged in their so-called "efficient operations," can't do their job during the course of a regular day. They have to come in early, stay late and work through the lunch hour. So, since breakfast, lunch and dinner have become company time, meals with clients deserve to be classified as a business expense.

Come on. It seems to me that the economy would be better off if businesspeople spent less time lobbying to increase the subsidy to overfed white-collar welfare recipients and more time figuring out how to hire back taxpaying workers.

Happy Income Tax Day.--Howard Seftel

 
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