Recent reports of GE’s artful dodge of U.S. income tax liability are the perfect curtain raisers for the annual tax filing ritual. Yet another example of the injustice of our tax code! Time for a flat tax! No more loopholes for fat cats! Put aside GE’s tax lawyers’ interpretation of the tax code. What is more important than the furor over the story is that it represents yet another missed opportunity for a rational debate and another lost chance to design tax policies to spur innovation, global competitiveness, and growth.
When it comes to tax policy, the left usually lumps the rich and corporations together as villains who should pay up. They argue the tax code is not progressive enough and one way to make it so is to go after the plutocratic moneyed interests.
Inadvertently, the left makes a legitimate point lumping wealthy individuals and corporations together. But it is not because corporations and wealthy individuals are two distinct entities with common traits. Rather it is because a corporation is individual people – some rich, some poor. A corporation is a legal construct but it actually an amalgamation of employees and shareholders bonded by a desire to take in more than what is spent producing whatever it provides to the market. When corporations benefit from tax cuts, guess who benefits. It is not a data file sitting in some computer in Delaware but investors, employees, and consumers.
As for progressivity, the left also makes a fair point as we have seen income disparity widen in the last 30 years. But we aren’t going to close income gaps by going after corporations. Rather we need to abolish the tax cuts on individual dividend payments instituted almost a decade and raise the top marginal rates on individual income to mid-1990s levels. But don’t shake down corporations. In today’s globalized, highly-competitive market, we can ill afford to raise money from companies facing competitors whose countries are cutting, not raising, corporate taxes.
The U.S. now has one of the highest effective corporate tax rates of any OECD company. In other words, not only is the rate U.S. corporations pay (on average 39 percent) high, but the actual rate they pay after deductions and credit is also extremely high, notwithstanding some individual companies who may not pay much in any particular year. The high corporate tax rate is not making our companies stronger and inducing domestic investment. Quite the opposite.
Meanwhile, many of those on the right and in the center have an almost messianic devotion to the notion of broadening the tax base and lowering rates by getting rid of a host of deductions, credits, and exemptions. For them, simplicity is the golden rule. They want to tax every company and every activity the same way. But as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated, “seek simplicity but distrust it.”
There’s a simple reason not to treat everything companies do the same: the impacts on jobs and growth are not the same. That’s why, for example, virtually every academic study on the issue finds that giving companies a tax credit for research and development they do here in the United States is good effective policy. It’s the same for tax credits for investment in new capital equipment and software. There’s also a good reason not to treat all industries the same.
The simple fact is that industries like grocery stores, electric utilities and car dealers do not compete globally while industries like steel, pharmaceuticals, and electronics do. While the former provide needed services if we raise their taxes they are not going to build fewer grocery stores, electric wires, or car dealerships. But if we raise the taxes of steel companies, drug companies and electronics companies they will do the rational thing that any company would do: move production to the nations that tax them less. Currently, the former industries pay significantly higher effective tax rates than the last three. And that is exactly how it should be. This is why many state’s tax code favors manufacturing and high tech firms. It’s why most countries’ tax code does the same thing. They realize that jobs depend on the health of their companies that are in competition with firms outside their borders.
So, as you get ready to file your taxes, don’t grumble about GE. Turn your anger toward a polarized, irrational, and tired debate in Washington that is aimed at leveraging votes instead of creating the kind of innovative, productive, and globally competitive economic activity that American workers so desperately need.