5 Juicy Tax Breaks That Corporations Enjoy That the Public Can't Touch

Corporations are quick to claim “corporate personhood” and their First Amendment rights when it comes to their ability to donate to political candidates, influence elections, and lobby or when it comes to advertising their products, especially those deemed dangerous or socially destructive. But on tax day, corporations are quite content with a tax code full of perks and privileges for corporations that are not available to living, breathing human beings.

  1. When corporations break the law, they get a tax break

If you forget to feed the meter, or go a little too fast and get a speed camera traffic ticket in the mail, or God forbid fail to pick up after your dog in a public park, when it comes to tax time, forget it – none of these fines for bad behavior are tax deductible.

But that’s not the case for corporate bad actors.  Take, for example, BP’s toxic mess in the Gulf of Mexico or Wells Fargo’s abusive lending practices that cost tens of thousands American families their homes. BP’s clean-up costs and Wells Fargo’s settlement fees were likely fully deductible, leaving the rest of us to pick up a significant piece of the tab for their destructive behavior. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) have issued a bi-partisan call to end the tax deduction for Wall Street banks settling charges of lending abuse that lead to the Great Recession.

  1. When corporations fall on hard times, the tax code helps makes them whole

When corporations fall on hard times and lose money in a given year, those losses cannot only be used to fully offset any taxes they owe that year, but they are allowed to carry those losses into the future for up to seven years, reducing their taxes when good times return.

Families face a different set of rules on tax day. Imagine the family that has experienced long-term unemployment or costs of an uninsured major illness during the year. They might have to deplete their savings or retirement accounts to stay afloat. Like the corporation, they are able to deduct the cost of their losses in the year they occur, but unlike corporations they cannot generally carry the deductions they cannot use into future years.

Corporations can use future tax savings to recoup their losses and replenish the savings drained during the bad year. Human families get no such benefit. 

  1. Many corporations get to choose where in the world to report their income, allowing them to choose a nation with low or no taxes

For American workers, there is little doubt where their income is earned and thus where the taxes are owed. If you are a doctor with an office in Omaha, you can’t pack up your diploma and ship it to a bank vault in the Cayman Islands and tell your patients to mail their payment check to a post office box in the Caribbean nation, explaining that they need to pay for the intellectual property represented by that diploma.

But if you are a corporation, that’s exactly what you can do. U.S corporations have $1.7 trillion of their profits stashed offshore, much of it in places like the Cayman Islands, even though most have no employees or offices in tax haven nations. They do so because they register their patents in a tax haven nation, like the Cayman Islands, that imposes no taxes on corporate income. They argue that the shift in profits from the U.S. to the tax haven is to pay the cost of the intellectual property represented by the patent. This sort of profit shifting and tax haven abuse by corporations costs the U.S Treasury $90 billion a year in lost tax revenue.

  1. Superstorm Sandy devastated millions of American families, but corporations got to deduct the full value of their losses from their taxes

Millions of American families suffered damage to their homes and property last year, from Superstorm Sandy, western fires and other natural disasters. The federal tax code expects human property owners to pick up the full cost of damage for an amount equal to ten percent of the taxpayer’s annual reported income. Beyond the ten percent threshold, any additional losses may be taken as a tax deduction.

In contrast, corporations face no such income threshold. Corporate shareholders are not asked to absorb damages equal to ten percent of the corporation’s taxable income as individual families are. Corporations can –and do – deduct every dollar of losses they incur. Many firms, including Verizon and other utilities serving the New York and New Jersey areas saved millions of dollars on their 2012 taxes by deducting the full costs of Sandy damage on their taxes.

  1. If you are an American citizen working abroad you pay American taxes on your foreign earnings; if you are an American corporation you can indefinitely delay paying U.S. taxes on income you earn abroad.

About five million American citizens live or work abroad. Come April 15th, each of them is expected to file a tax return and pay U.S. taxes on all their income. The amount they owe is reduced by an amount equal to any taxes they paid to foreign governments on that income.

But U.S. corporations get a different deal, called deferral. They get to indefinitely put off paying U.S. taxes of their foreign until and unless they bring those funds back to America. This loophole costs the U.S. Treasury almost $60 billion a year. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) recently introduced the Corporate Tax Dodging Prevention Act, which would close this loophole, putting corporations and real humans on the same footing come tax time.

As many people work hard to make corporations less human on election day, perhaps it is time to make them more human on tax day.

Scott Klinger is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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