December 5, 2023

Economix: The Logic of Cutting Corporate Taxes

Today's Economist

Laura D’Andrea Tyson is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and served as chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton.

Corporate taxes –- or rather their absence –- have jumped to the top of the news in recent weeks, even drawing humorous commentary from Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. Many Americans are outraged to learn that some profitable American corporations pay little or no taxes in the United States, especially when corporate profits enjoyed their fastest growth ever in 2010.

Shouldn’t the government raise the corporate tax rate to require corporations to contribute their “fair share” to deficit reduction and to enhance the progressivity of the tax system? The answer is no.

In today’s world of mobile capital, increasing the corporate tax rate would be a bad way to generate revenues for deficit reduction, a bad way to increase the progressivity of the tax code and a bad way to help American workers and their families.

After the 1986 tax overhaul, the United States had one of the lowest corporate tax rates among the advanced industrial countries. Since then, these countries have been slashing their rates both to attract investment by American and other foreign companies and to discourage their own companies from shifting operations and profits to foreign locations offering even lower tax rates.

KPMG Corporate and Indirect Tax Rate Survey, 2008, published in “Growth and Competitiveness in the United States: The Role of Its Multinational Companies,” McKinsey Global Institute, June 2010.

The resulting “race to the bottom” in corporate tax rates has made the United States a less attractive place for both domestic and foreign investments, and that has encouraged American multinational companies to shift more of their income abroad, in ways permitted by the United States tax code.

The United States now has the highest corporate tax rate of all developed countries –- and is alone in its attempt to impose taxes on the worldwide income of its resident corporations. All other developed countries and most major emerging countries have adopted a territorial system that exempts most foreign income of their resident corporations from taxes.

Some critics, like Jeffrey Sachs, say the United States should resist participating in the race to the bottom and should champion a multilateral agreement that increases taxes on corporate income. My fellow Economix blogger Nancy Folbre made that same point on Monday.

But there is no sign that other countries are interested. The European Union can’t even agree on harmonizing the corporate tax rates of its member nations. In continuing negotiations over an European Union bailout package, Ireland has steadfastly rejected French and German demands to increase its low corporate tax rate (12.5 percent, the lowest rate in the European Union and one of the lowest in the world).

And Ireland has been wise to do so: its corporate tax incentives are credited with attracting significant amounts of foreign direct investment by European and American companies that fostered the Irish development miracle of the last decade.

The race to the bottom in corporate tax rates reflects intensifying competition among countries for mobile capital and technological know-how to support jobs and wages for immobile workers.

For many years, the conventional wisdom was that the corporate income tax was principally borne by the owners of capital in the form of lower returns. Now, with more mobile capital, workers are bearing more of the burden in the form of lower wages and productivity as investments move around the world in search of better tax treatment and higher returns.

In this environment, a high corporate tax rate not only undermines the growth and competitiveness of American companies; it is also increasingly ineffective as a tool to achieve more progressive outcomes in the taxation of capital and labor income.

The Obama administration and many members of Congress are calling for a significant reduction in the corporate tax rate to promote jobs and competitiveness, as well as a move to a territorial tax system.

At the same time, they are searching for ways to broaden the corporate tax base so that corporate tax revenues will either increase or remain unchanged, even with a lower tax rate. This search is proving difficult and may well produce an undesirable result.

A significant “revenue neutral” reduction in the corporate tax rate would require a significant broadening of the corporate tax base, and that in turn would require scaling back or eliminating three large corporate tax expenditures that reduce the cost of capital and encourage new investment and job creation in the United States: accelerated depreciation, the domestic manufacturing production deduction and the research and development tax credit.

Cutting these items to “pay for” a reduction in the corporate tax rate would increase the cost of new investments in the United States and could impose higher burdens on American workers, in the form of forgone productivity and wage growth. (For a discussion of the pros and cons of different options to reform the corporate tax system, see the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board’s Report on Tax Reform Options: Simplification, Compliance and Corporate Taxation, published in August 2010.)

More promising ways to pay for a significant reduction in the corporate tax rate have been proposed.

Prof. Michael Graetz of Columbia Law School told the Senate Finance Committee that the shortfall in corporate tax revenues resulting from a cut in the corporate tax rate could be offset by the imposition of a corporate withholding tax on dividend and interest payments to shareholders and bondholders.

Many countries that have reduced their corporate tax rates have raised taxes on these groups; the United States has been going in the opposite direction.

According to a recent study by Rosanne Altshuler, Benjamin H. Harris and Eric Toder, restoring tax rates on dividends and capital gains to their pre-1997 level of 28 percent could finance a reduction in the federal corporate tax rate to 26 percent from 35 percent.

Such a change would both reduce the incentive for corporations to move investments abroad and increase the progressivity of tax outcomes by shifting more of the burden of corporate taxation from labor to capital owners.

Professor Graetz, and more recently, William G. Gale and Mr. Harris have proposed introducing a value-added tax to reduce the deficit and to finance a reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Most countries that have reduced their corporate tax rates have a value added tax that accounts for a significant share of their tax revenues. To offset the regressive effects of a value added tax, countries have used lower value-added-tax rates on items like food, health care and education, as well as cash subsidies for poor households.

I believe that a federal value added tax with such offsets should be considered as part of a balanced multiyear deficit-reduction package that includes a sizeable reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Many Americans who are outraged that American corporations pay little or no corporate tax would be equally outraged to learn that more than 50 percent of all business income is earned by partnerships, sole proprietorships and S corporations, many of which are very large and profitable and enjoy the same legal benefits as regular corporations and do not pay corporate taxes.

Broadening the corporate tax base to include more business organizations with corporate characteristics would allow for a revenue-neutral reduction in the corporate tax rate that would make the United States a more attractive location for both foreign and domestic investments, with benefits for American workers.

The United States needs a significantly lower tax rate on corporate income, not a higher one.

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