Four Easy Fixes for Corporate Taxation

It's time to force governments to stamp out tax abuse by corporations and the wealthy.

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Everyone "knows" that the corporate income tax is a mess. Ask any company. They pay too much in corporate income tax, face rates higher than in any other OECD country, and are just following the law when they use tax havens to keep profits eternally deferred from taxation and to perform general sleight-of-hand.

Don't believe a word of it. While some economists believe we shouldn't tax corporations at all, the corporate income tax (CIT) is a necessary backstop to the personal income tax (PIT). With no CIT or a rate lower than the PIT, individuals have an incentive to incorporate their economic activities so they aren't taxed on them, or are taxed less. Needless to say, this is something an average wage or salary worker would not have the ability to do. This is another area where we have one tax law for the 1%, and different rules for the rest of us.

So what should we do? The answers are simple, which is not to say that achieving them will be simple. Corporate interests hold a lot of political sway right now, and overcoming them will be anything but easy.

1. End the usefulness of tax havens for secrecy by instituting "publish what you pay." Currently, companies can hide all sorts of transactions because they are only required to publish "consolidated" accounts of their global operations. Thus, Starbucks reports losses on its British tax statements while telling investors how profitable it is in Britain.  Apple can get away with leaving its subsidiaries in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the British Virgin Islands off its annual report because it classifies them as not "significant." By forcing companies to un-consolidate their reports, we would know where their employees were, where their their sales (both source and destination of products and services) were, where they declared their profits and paid their taxes, etc. Part of the beauty of "publish what you pay" is that it doesn't require the cooperation of the tax havens to obtain the information.

2. End the usefulness of tax havens for avoidance by enacting unitary taxation. Upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983, unitary taxation treats multinational corporations the same way many states already tax the income of multistate corporations: considering all of a company's subsidiaries as a single entity, and using a formula to determine what portion of its global profits are taxable in your jurisdiction. The most common factors to put in the formula are sales, employment, and assets. Like "publish what you pay," this has the advantage of not requiring the cooperation of the tax havens, which have largely shown themselves to be minimally cooperative at best with global efforts to combat tax evasion and tax avoidance.

A big roadblock is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which promotes allegedly "arm's length" transfer prices that companies long ago learned to run rings around. Via the Tax Justice Network, Bloomberg reports that this allows U.S. and European companies to save over $100 billion a year on their taxes. As an indication of how uncertain lost tax estimates are, note on the one hand that this is significantly less than the $189 billion TJN estimates is lost to illegal tax evasion, but at the same time Bloomberg reports that the European Union says it loses EUR 1 trillion ($1.3 trillion) annually to tax avoidance and evasion, far in excess of these other two estimates. We're talking big money here. The OECD has begun a project called Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS), but there is widespread doubt about how much progress will come out of this. Bloomberg notes a major revolving door where OECD tax officials leave to work for tax avoidance consultants, and documents how many OECD conferences on tax are underwritten by the very enablers of tax avoidance in the accounting and legal professions. Unitary taxation would make the BEPS project unnecessary, but the OECD has long opposed unitary taxation.

3. In the United States, end the deferral of taxes until profits are repatriated. In other words, require companies to pay tax in the year the money is earned, rather than when it comes back home years later, if ever. Tax deferred is tax reduced, at the very least. To show just how difficult this will be politically, Robert Gilpin of Princeton University recommended this in his book U.S. Power and the Multinational Corporation--all the way back in 1975. (By the way, this book was quite influential on my thinking in graduate school and ever since.) Even now, U.S. multinationals are trying to get a "repatriation holiday" that would allow them to bring back $1 trillion in profits at a nominal tax rate, even though the 2004 repatriation holiday was a dud in terms of investment and job creation.

4. Don't cut the corporate income tax rate. There is a big difference between the headline rate of 35%, which is indeed tops in the OECD, and the effective rate of 12.1%, one of the lowest in the OECD. In fact, there is a significant economics literature showing that large countries can charge higher taxes than smaller ones do without suffering for it, just like the federal government can charge a much higher CIT than state governments can. There is no need for the U.S. to content itself with revenue neutral combinations of rate cuts and base broadening when government will actually put the money to work, something companies have avoided doing ever since the beginning of the recession which, need I remind you, began over five years ago.

While the road to truly fixing corporate income tax will not be easy, we seem to have reached a promising juncture in the battle with government initiatives like the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and the massive International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) tax  haven investigations. Last week (via markthshark at Daily Kos), the U.S., British, and Australian tax agencies reported that they had received an even larger data leak than ICIJ had, and that one was gigantic. We certainly can't count our chickens yet; instead, we need to redouble our efforts to force governments to stamp out tax abuse by corporations and the wealthy.

Thomas is Professor of Political Science, University of Missouri-St. Louis. Author of Competing for Capital: Europe and North America in a Global Era (Georgetown University Press, 2000) and Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital (Palgrave, 2011).

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