Posts Tagged ‘Corporate income tax’

Based on the title of this column, you may think I’m going to write about oppressive IRS behavior or punitive tax policy.

Those are good guesses, but today’s “brutal tax beating” is about what happens when a clueless leftist writes a sophomoric column about tax policy and then gets corrected by an expert from the Tax Foundation.

The topic is the tax treatment of executive compensation, which is somewhat of a mess because part of Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax hike was a provision to bar companies from deducting executive compensation above $1 million when compiling their tax returns (which meant, for all intents and purposes, an additional back-door 35-percent tax penalty on salaries paid to CEO types). But to minimize the damaging impact of this discriminatory penalty, particularly on start-up firms, this extra tax didn’t apply to performance-based compensation such as stock options.

In a good and simple tax system, which taxes income only one time (including business income), the entire provision would be repealed.

But when Alvin Chang, a graphics reporter from Vox, wrote a column on this topic, he made the remarkable claim that somehow taxpayers are subsidizing big banks because the aforementioned penalty does not apply to performance-based compensation.

…the government doesn’t tax performance-based pay for…any…top bank executive in America. Unlike regular salaries — where the government takes out taxes to pay for Medicare, Social Security, and all other sorts of things — US tax code lets banks deduct the big bonuses they give to their executives. … The solution most Americans want is to either heavily tax CEO pay over a certain amount, or to set a strict cap on how much CEOs can make, relative to their workers. As long as this loophole is open, though, it makes sense for banks to continue paying executives these huge sums. ..for now, taxpayers are still ponying up to help make wealthy bankers even wealthier, because the US tax code encourages it.

Since Mr. Chang is a graphics reporter, you won’t be surprised that he included several images to augment his argument.

Here’s one making the case that companies should pay a 35 percent tax on performance-based pay for CEO types. Keep in mind, as you peruse this image, that recipients of performance-based pay have to declare that income on their 1040s and pay 39.6 percent individual income tax.

And here’s Chang’s look at how much money the IRS could have collected from big banks in recent years if the anti-CEO tax penalty was extended to performance-based pay.

When I look at these images, my gut reaction is to be offended that Chang equates “taxpayers” with the federal government.

So I would change the caption of the first image so it ended, “…this pile would be diverted from shareholders to politicians.”

And the caption in the second image would read, “This is the amount it saved taxpayers.”

But Chang’s argument is also flawed for much deeper reasons. Scott Greenberg of the Tax Foundation debunks his entire column. Not just debunks. Eviscerates. Destroys.

Here are some of the highlights.

…the article contains several factual errors and misleading claims about how CEOs are taxed in America. The article begins by making an incorrect claim: that the federal government does not tax performance-based CEO pay… This is simply untrue. Under the U.S. tax code, households are generally required to pay individual income taxes on the value of the stock options and bonuses that they receive…up to 39.6% on the performance-based pay… The article continues with another false assertion…it claims that CEO performance-based pay is not subject to the same Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes as “regular salaries.” In fact, all employee compensation, including CEO pay, is subject to Medicare payroll taxes, and high-income individuals actually pay a higher Medicare payroll tax rate than most other employees. …it claims that U.S. businesses are allowed to deduct CEO pay but are not allowed to deduct “regular salaries.” This is patently incorrect. Under the U.S. tax code, businesses are allowed to deduct virtually all compensation to employees. In fact, the only major exception to this rule is that businesses are only allowed to deduct $1 million in non-performance-based salaries to CEOs. This means that the U.S. tax code gives the same, if not worse, treatment to CEO compensation as “regular salaries.”

Scott also addresses the silly assertion that deductions for CEO compensation are some sort of subsidy.

You probably wouldn’t claim that taxpayers are subsidizing the restaurant worker’s salary, because the deduction for employee compensation is a regular, structural feature of the tax code. In general, businesses in the U.S. are taxed on their revenues minus their expenses, and the salary paid to the worker is a business expense like any other. The same argument applies for CEO compensation. When a business pays a CEO $155 million, it has increased its expenses and decreased its profits. The normal logic of U.S. tax law dictates that the business be allowed to deduct the CEO’s compensation from its taxable income. Then, the CEO is required to pay individual income taxes on the compensation.

The bottom line, as Scott points out, is that Bill Clinton’s provision means that CEO pay is penalized rather than subsidized.

…wages and salaries of CEOs are penalized relative to the wages and salaries of regular employees, while performance-based compensation is taxed in the same manner as regular wages and salaries. In sum, it is simply wrong to say that the federal tax code subsidizes CEO pay.

Game, set, and match. Mr. Chang should stick to graphics rather than tax policy.

And policy makers should resist tax policies based on envy and resentment since the net result is a tax code that is needless complex and pointlessly destructive.

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Working the world of public policy, I’m used to surreal moments.

Such as the assertion that there are trillions of dollars of spending cuts in plans that actually increase spending. How do you have a debate with people who don’t understand math?

Or the oft-repeated myth that the Reagan tax cuts for the rich starved the government of revenue. How can you have a rational discussion with people who don’t believe IRS data?

And let’s not overlook my personal favorite, which is blaming so-called tax havens for the financial crisis, even though places such as the Cayman Islands had nothing to do with the Fed’s easy-money policy or with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies.

These are all example of why my hair is turning gray.

But I’ll soon have white hair based on having to deal with the new claim from European bureaucrats that countries are guilty of providing subsidies if they have low taxes for companies.

I’m not joking. This is basically what’s behind the big tax fight between Apple, Ireland, and the European Commission.

Here’s what I said about this issue yesterday.

There are three things about this interview are worth highlighting.

  • First, the European Commission is motivated by a desire for more tax revenue. Disappointing, but hardly surprising.
  • Second, Ireland has benefited immensely from low-tax policies and that’s something that should be emulated rather than punished.
  • Third, I hope Ireland will respond with a big corporate tax cut, just as they did when their low-tax policies were first attacked many years ago.

I also chatted with the folks from the BBC.

I’ll add a few comments on this interview as well.

Here’s an interview from the morning, which was conducted by phone since I didn’t want to interrupt my much-needed beauty sleep by getting to the studio at the crack of dawn.

Once again, here are a few follow-up observations.

  • First, I realize I’m being repetitive, but it’s truly bizarre that the European Commission thinks that low taxes are a subsidy. This is the left-wing ideology that the government has first claim on all income.
  • Second, it’s a wonky point, but Europe’s high-tax nations can use transfer pricing rules if they think that Apple (or other companies) are trying to artificially shift income to low-tax countries like Ireland.
  • Third, the U.S. obviously needs to reform its wretched corporate tax system, but that won’t solve this problem since it’s about an effort to impose more tax on Apple’s foreign-source income.

The Wall Street Journal opined wisely on this issue, starting with the European Commission’s galling decision to use anti-trust laws to justify the bizarre assertion that low taxes are akin to a business subsidy.

Even by the usual Brussels standards of economic malpractice, Tuesday’s €13 billion ($14.5 billion) tax assault on Apple is something to behold. …Apple paid all the taxes it owed under existing tax laws around the world, which is why it hasn’t been subject to enforcement proceedings by revenue authorities. …Brussels now wants to use antitrust law to tell Ireland and other low-tax countries how to apply their own tax laws. …Brussels is deploying its antitrust gnomes to claim that taxes that are “too low” are an illegal subsidy under EU state-aid rules.

This is amazing. A subsidy is when government officials use coercion to force taxpayers (or consumers) to pay more in order to line the pockets of a company or industry. The Export-Import Bank would be an example of this odious practice, as would ethanol handouts.

Choosing to tax at a lower rate is not in this category. It’s a reduction in government coercion.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re necessarily talking about good policy since there are plenty of preferential tax laws that should be wiped out as part of a shift to a simple and fair flat tax.

I’m simply pointing out that lower taxes are not “state aid.”

The WSJ also points out that it’s not uncommon for major companies to seek clarification rulings from tax authorities.

Brussels points to correspondence between Irish tax officials and Apple executives to claim that Apple enjoyed favors not available to other companies, which would be tantamount to a subsidy. But all Apple received from Dublin, in 1991 and 2007, were letters confirming how the tax authorities would treat various transactions under the Irish laws that applied to everyone. If anyone in Brussels knew more about tax law, they’d realize such “comfort letters” are common practice around the world.

Indeed, the IRS routinely approves “advance pricing agreements” with major American taxpayers.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that governments (the U.S., Ireland, or others) treat all transactions appropriately. But it does mean that Ireland isn’t doing something strange or radical.

The editorial also makes the much-needed point that the Obama White House and Treasury Department are hardly in a position to grouse, particularly because of the demagoguery and rule-twisting that have been used to discourage corporate inversions.

As for the U.S., the Treasury Department pushed back against these tax cases, which it rightly views as a protectionist threat to the rule of law. But it’s hard to believe that Brussels would have pulled this stunt if Treasury enjoyed the global respect it once did. President Obama and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have also contributed to the antibusiness political mood by assailing American companies for moving to low-tax countries.


It’s also worth noting that the Obama Administration has been supportive of the OECD’s BEPS initiative, which also is designed to increase corporate tax burdens and clearly will disadvantage US companies.

A story from the Associated Press reveals the European Commission’s real motive.

The European Commission says…it should help protect countries from unfair tax competition. When one country’s tax policy hurts a neighbor’s revenues, that country should be able to protect its tax base.

Wow, think about what this implies.

We all recognize, as consumers, the benefits of having lots of restaurants competing for our business. Or several cell phone companies. Or lots of firms that make washing machines. Competition helps us by leading to lower prices, higher quality, and better service. And it also boosts the overall economy because of the pressure to utilize resources more efficiently and productively.

So why, then, should the European Commission be working to protect governments from competition? Why is it bad for a country with low tax rates to attract jobs and investment from nations with high tax rates?

The answer, needless to say, is that tax competition is a good thing. Ever since the Reagan and Thatcher tax cuts got the process started, there have been major global reductions in tax rates, both for households and businesses, as governments have competed with each other (sadly, the US has fallen way behind in the contest for good business taxation).

Politicians understandably don’t like this liberalizing process, but the tax competition-induced drop in tax rates is one of the reason why the stagflation of the 1960s and 1970s was replaced by comparatively strong growth in the 1980s and 1990s.

Let’s close by looking at one final story.

Bloomberg has a report on the Apple-Ireland-EC controversy. Here are some relevant passages.

Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan on Tuesday vowed to fight a European Commission ruling… The country’s corporate tax regime is a cornerstone of its economic policy, attracting Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. to Dublin. …While the Apple ruling doesn’t directly threaten the 12.5 percent rate, the government has promised to stand by executives it says are helping the economy. “To do anything else, it would be like eating the seed potatoes,” Noonan told broadcaster RTE on Tuesday, adding a failure to fight the case would hurt future generations.

Kudos to Noonan for understanding that a short-term grab for more revenue will be bad news if the tradeoff is a more onerous tax system that reduces future growth.

I wish Hillary Clinton was capable of learning the same lesson.

Also, it’s worth noting that Apple is just the tip of the iceberg. If the EC succeeds, many other American companies will be under the gun.

The iPhone-maker is one of more than 700 U.S. companies that have units there, employing a combined 140,000 people, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland.

And when politicians – either here or overseas – raise taxes on companies, never forget that they’re actually raising taxes on worker, consumers, and shareholders.

P.S. Just in case you think the Obama Administration is sincere about defending Apple and other American companies, don’t forget that these are the folks who included a global corporate minimum tax scheme in the President’s most recent budget.

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I have a love-hate relationship with corporations.

On the plus side, I admire corporations that efficiently and effectively compete by producing valuable goods and services for consumers, and I aggressively defend those firms from politicians who want to impose harmful and destructive forms of taxes, regulation, and intervention.

On the minus side, I am disgusted by corporations that get in bed with politicians to push policies that undermine competition and free markets, and I strongly oppose all forms of cronyism and coercion that give big firms unearned and undeserved wealth.

With this in mind, let’s look at two controversies from the field of corporate taxation, both involving the European Commission (the EC is the Brussels-based bureaucracy that is akin to an executive branch for the European Union).

First, there’s a big fight going on between the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC. As reported by Bloomberg, it’s a battle over whether European governments should be able to impose higher tax burdens on American-domiciled multinationals.

The U.S. is stepping up its effort to convince the European Commission to refrain from hitting Apple Inc. and other companies with demands for possibly billions of euros… In a white paper released Wednesday, the Treasury Department in Washington said the Brussels-based commission is taking on the role of a “supra-national tax authority” that has the scope to threaten global tax reform deals. …The commission has initiated investigations into tax rulings that Apple, Starbucks Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. received in separate EU nations. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has written previously that the investigations appear “to be targeting U.S. companies disproportionately.” The commission’s spokesman said Wednesday that EU law “applies to all companies operating in Europe — there is no bias against U.S. companies.”

As you can imagine, I have a number of thoughts about this spat.

  • First, don’t give the Obama Administration too much credit for being on the right side of the issue. The Treasury Department is motivated in large part by a concern that higher taxes imposed by European governments would mean less ability to collect tax by the U.S. government.
  • Second, complaints by the US about a “supra-national tax authority” are extremely hypocritical since the Obama White House has signed the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which effectively would create a nascent World Tax Organization (the pact is thankfully being blocked by Senator Rand Paul).
  • Third, hypocrisy by the US doesn’t change the fact that the European Commission bureaucrats are in the wrong because their argument is based on the upside-down notion that low tax burdens are a form of “state aid.”
  • Fourth, Europeans are in the wrong because the various national governments should simply adjust their “transfer pricing” rules if they think multinational companies are playing games to under-state profits in high-tax nations and over-state profits in low-tax nations.
  • Fifth, the Europeans are in the wrong because low corporate tax rates are the best way to curtail unproductive forms of tax avoidance.
  • Sixth, some European nations are in the wrong if they don’t allow domestic companies to enjoy the low tax rates imposed on multinational firms.

Since we’re on the topic of corporate tax rates and the European Commission, let’s shift from Brussels to Geneva and see an example of good tax policy in action. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report about how a Swiss canton is responding in the right way to an attack by the EC.

When the European Union pressured Switzerland to scrap tax breaks for foreign companies, Geneva had most to lose. Now, the canton that’s home to almost 1,000 multinationals is set to use tax to burnish its appeal. Geneva will on Aug. 30 propose cutting its corporate tax rate to 13.49 percent from 24.2 percent…the new regime will improve the Swiss city’s competitive position, according to Credit Suisse Group AG. “I could see Geneva going up very high in the ranks,” said Thierry Boitelle, a lawyer at Bonnard Lawson in the city. …A rate of about 13 percent would see Geneva jump 13 places to become the third-most attractive of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

This puts a big smile on my face.

Geneva is basically doing the same thing Ireland did many years ago when it also was attacked by Brussels for having a very low tax rate on multinational firms while taxing domestic firms at a higher rate.

The Irish responded to the assault by implementing a very low rate for all businesses, regardless of whether they were local firms or global firms. And the Irish economy benefited immensely.

Now it’s happening again, which must be very irritating for the bureaucrats in Brussels since the attack on Geneva (just like the attack on Ireland) was designed to force tax rates higher rather than lower.

As a consequence, in one fell swoop, Geneva will now be one of the most competitive cantons in Switzerland.

Here’s another reason I’m smiling.

The Geneva reform will put even more pressure on the tax-loving French.

France, which borders the canton to the south, east and west, has a tax rate of 33.33 percent… Within Europe, Geneva’s rate would only exceed a number of smaller economies such as Ireland’s 12.5 percent and Montenegro, which has the region’s lowest rate of 9 percent. That will mean Geneva competes with Ireland, the Netherlands and the U.K. as a low-tax jurisdiction.

Though the lower tax rate in Geneva is not a sure thing.

We’ll have to see if local politicians follow through on this announcement. And there also may be a challenge from left-wing voters, something made possible by Switzerland’s model of direct democracy.

Opposition to the new rate from left-leaning political parties will probably trigger a referendum as it would only require 500 signatures.

Though I suspect the “sensible Swiss” of Geneva will vote the right way, at least if the results from an adjoining canton are any indication.

In a March plebiscite in the neighboring canton of Vaud, 87.1 percent of voters backed cutting the corporate tax rate to 13.79 percent from 21.65 percent.

So I fully expect voters in Geneva will make a similarly wise choice, especially since they are smart enough to realize that high tax rates won’t collect much money if the geese with the golden eggs fly away.

Failure to agree on a competitive tax rate in Geneva could result in an exodus of multinationals, cutting cantonal revenues by an even greater margin, said Denis Berdoz, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Geneva, who specializes in tax and corporate law. “They don’t really have a choice,” said Berdoz. “If the companies leave, the loss could be much higher.”

In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

Now let’s understand why the development in Geneva is a good thing (and why the EC effort to impose higher taxes on US-based multinational is a bad thing).

Simply stated, high corporate tax burdens are bad for workers and the overall economy.

In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute consider the benefits of a less punitive corporate tax system.

They start with the theoretical case.

If the next president has a plan to increase wages that is based on well-documented and widely accepted empirical evidence, he should have little trouble finding bipartisan support. …Fortunately, such a plan exists. …both parties should unite and demand a cut in corporate tax rates. The economic theory behind this proposition is uncontroversial. More productive workers earn higher wages. Workers become more productive when they acquire better skills or have better tools. Lower corporate rates create the right incentives for firms to give workers better tools.

Then they unload a wealth of empirical evidence.

What proof is there that lower corporate rates equal higher wages? Quite a lot. In 2006 we co-wrote the first empirical study on the direct link between corporate taxes and manufacturing wages. …Our empirical analysis, which used data we gathered on international tax rates and manufacturing wages in 72 countries over 22 years, confirmed that the corporate tax is for the most part paid by workers. …There has since been a profusion of research that confirms that workers suffer when corporate tax rates are higher. In a 2007 paper Federal Reserve economist Alison Felix used data from the Luxembourg Income Study, which tracks individual incomes across 30 countries, to show that a 10% increase in corporate tax rates reduces wages by about 7%. In a 2009 paper Ms. Felix found similar patterns across the U.S., where states with higher corporate tax rates have significantly lower wages. …Harvard University economists Mihir Desai, Fritz Foley and Michigan’s James R. Hines have studied data from American multinational firms, finding that their foreign affiliates tend to pay significantly higher wages in countries with lower corporate tax rates. A study by Nadja Dwenger, Pia Rattenhuber and Viktor Steiner found similar patterns across German regions… Canadian economists Kenneth McKenzie and Ergete Ferede. They found that wages in Canadian provinces drop by more than a dollar when corporate tax revenue is increased by a dollar.

So what’s the moral of the story?

It’s very simple.

…higher wages are relatively easy to stimulate for a nation. One need only cut corporate tax rates. Left and right leaning countries have done this over the past two decades, including Japan, Canada and Germany. Yet in the U.S. we continue to undermine wage growth with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

The Tax Foundation echoes this analysis, noting that even the Paris-based OECD has acknowledged that corporate taxes are especially destructive on a per-dollar-raised basis.

In a landmark 2008 study Tax and Economic Growth, economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) determined that the corporate income tax is the most harmful tax for economic growth. …The study also found that statutory corporate tax rates have a negative effect on firms that are in the “process of catching up with the productivity performance of the best practice firms.” This suggests that “lowering statutory corporate tax rates can lead to particularly large productivity gains in firms that are dynamic and profitable, i.e. those that can make the largest contribution to GDP growth.”

Sadly, there’s often a gap between the analysis of the professional economists at the OECD and the work of the left-leaning policy-making divisions of that international bureaucracy.

The OECD has been a long-time advocate of schemes to curtail tax competition and in recent years even has concocted a “base erosion and profit shifting” initiative designed to boost the tax burden on businesses.

In a study for the Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal Issues (also based, coincidentally, in Paris), Pierre Bessard and Fabio Cappelletti analyze the harmful impact of corporate taxation and the unhelpful role of the OECD.

…the latest years have been marked by an abundance of proposals to reform national tax codes to patch these alleged “loopholes”. Among them, the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting package (BEPS) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the most alarming one because of its global ambition. …The OECD thereby assumes, without any substantiation, that the corporate income tax is both just and an efficient way for governments to collect revenue.

Pierre and Fabio point out that the OECD’s campaign to impose heavier taxes on business is actually just a back-door way of imposing a higher burden on individuals.

…the whole value created by corporations is sooner or later transferred to various individuals, may it be as dividends (for owners and shareholders), interest payments (for lenders), wages (for employees) and payments for the provided goods and services (for suppliers). Second, corporations as such do not pay taxes. …at the end of the day the burden of any tax levied on them has to be carried by an individual.

This doesn’t necessarily mean there shouldn’t be a corporate tax (in nations that decide to tax income). After all, it is administratively simpler to tax a company than to track down potentially thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of shareholders.

But it’s rather important to consider the structure of the corporate tax system. Is it a simple system that taxes economic activity only one time based on cash flow? Or does it have various warts, such as double taxation and deprecation, that effectively result in much higher tax rates on productive behavior?

Most nations unfortunately go with the latter approach (with place such as Estonia and Hong Kong being admirable exceptions). And that’s why, as Pierre and Fabio explain, the corporate income tax is especially harmful.

…the general consensus is that the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the corporate income tax is much higher than the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the personal income tax… This is due to the corporate income tax generating additional distortions. … Calls by the OECD and other bodies to standardize corporate tax rules and increase tax revenue in high-tax countries in effect would equate to calls for higher prices for consumers, lower wages for workers and lower returns for pension funds. Corporate taxes also depress available capital for investment and therefore productivity and wage growth, holding back purchasing power. In addition, the deadweight losses arising from corporate income taxation are particularly high. They include lobbying for preferential rates and treatments, diverting attention and resources from production and wealth creation, and distorting decisions in corporate financing and the choice of organizational form.

From my perspective, the key takeaway is that income taxes are always bad for prosperity, but the real question is whether they somewhat harmful or very harmful. So let’s close with some very depressing news about how America’s system ranks in that regard.

The Tax Foundation has just produced a very helpful map showing corporate tax rates around the world. All you need to know about the American system is that dark green is very bad (i.e., a corporate tax rate that is way above the average) and dark blue is very good.

And to make matters worse, the high tax rate is just part of the problem. A German think tank produced a study that looked at other major features of business taxation and concluded that the United States ranked #94 out of 100 nations.

It would be bad to have a high rate with a Hong Kong-designed corporate tax structure. But we have something far worse, a high rate with what could be considered a French-designed corporate tax structure.

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If you get into the weeds of tax policy and had a contest for parts of the internal revenue code that are “boring but important,” depreciation would be at the top of the list. After all, how many people want to learn about America’s Byzantine system that imposes a discriminatory tax penalty on new investment? Yes, it’s a self-destructive policy that imposes a lot of economic damage, but even I’ll admit it’s not a riveting topic (though I tried to make it culturally relevant by using ABBA as an example).

In second place would be a policy called “deferral,” which deals with a part of the law that allows companies to delay an extra layer of tax that the IRS imposes on income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other countries. It is “boring but important” because it has major implications on the ability of American-domiciled firms to compete for market share overseas.

Here’s a video that explains the issue, though feel free to skip it and continue reading if you already are familiar with how the law works.

The simple way to think of this eye-glazing topic is that “deferral” is a good policy that partially mitigates the impact of a bad policy known as “worldwide taxation.”

Unfortunately, good policy tends to be unpopular in Washington. This is why deferral (and related issues such as inversions, which occur for the simple reason that worldwide taxation creates a huge competitive disadvantage for U.S.-domiciled companies) is playing an unusually large role in the 2016 election and concomitant tax debates.

Consider the tax controversy involving Apple. The CEO does not want to surrender money that belongs to shareholders to the government.

Apple CEO Tim Cook struck back at critics of the iPhone maker’s strategy to avoid paying U.S. taxes, telling The Washington Post in a wide ranging interview that the company would not bring that money back from abroad unless there was a “fair rate.”

Since the discussion is about income that Apple has earned in other nations (and therefore about income that already has been subject to all applicable taxes in other nations), the only “fair rate” from the United States is zero.

That’s because good tax systems are based on “territorial taxation” rather than “worldwide taxation.”

Though a worldwide tax system might not impose that much damage if a nation had a low corporate tax rate.

Unfortunately, that’s not a good description of the U.S. system, which has a very high rate, thus creating a big incentive to hold money overseas to avoid having to pay a very hefty second layer of tax to the IRS on income that already has been subject to tax by foreign governments.

Along with other multinational companies, the tech giant has been subject to criticism over a tax strategy that allows them to shelter profits made abroad from the U.S. corporate tax rate, which at 35 percent is among the highest in the developed world.

“Among”? I don’t know if this is a sign of bias or ignorance on the part of CNBC, but the U.S. unquestionably has the highest corporate tax rate among developed nations.

Indeed, it might even be the highest in the entire world.

Anyhow, Mr. Cook points out that there’s nothing patriotic about needlessly paying extra tax to the IRS, especially when it would mean a very punitive tax rate.

…a few particularly strident critics have lambasted Apple as a tax dodger. …While some proponents of the higher U.S. tax rate say it’s unpatriotic for companies to practice inversions or shelter income, Cook hit back at the suggestion. “It is the current tax law. It’s not a matter of being patriotic or not patriotic,” Cook told The Post in a lengthy sit-down. “It doesn’t go that the more you pay, the more patriotic you are.” …Cook added that “when we bring it back, we will pay 35 percent federal tax and then a weighted average across the states that we’re in, which is about 5 percent, so think of it as 40 percent. We’ve said at 40 percent, we’re not going to bring it back until there’s a fair rate. There’s no debate about it.”

Cook may be right that there’s “no debate” about whether it’s sensible for a company to keep money overseas to guard against bad tax policy.

But there is a debate about whether politicians will make the law worse in a grab for more revenue.

Senator Ron Wyden, for instance, doesn’t understand the issue. He wrote an editorial asserting that Apple is engaging in a “rip-off.”

…the heart of this mess is the big dog of tax rip-offs – tax deferral. This is the rule that encourages American multinational corporations to keep their profits overseas instead of investing them here at home, and it does so by granting them $80 billion a year in tax breaks. This policy…defies common sense. …some of the most profitable companies in the world can put off paying taxes indefinitely while hardworking Americans must pay their taxes every year. …that system creates a perverse incentive to keep corporate profits overseas instead of investing here at home.

I agree with him that the current system creates a perverse incentive to keep money abroad.

But you don’t solve that problem by imposing unconstrained worldwide taxation, which would create a perverse incentive structure that discourages American-domiciled firms from competing for market share in other nations.

Amazingly, Senator Wyden actually claims that making the system more punitive would help make America a better place to do business.

…ending deferral is a necessary step in making sure…the U.S. maintains its position as the best place to do business.

Wow, this rivals some of the crazy things that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said.

Though I guess we need to give Wyden credit for honesty. He admits that what he really wants is for Washington to have more money to spend.

Ending deferral will also generate money from existing deferred taxes to pay for rebuilding our country’s crumbling infrastructure. …This is a priority that almost all tax reform proposals have called for.

By the way, can you guess which presidential candidate agrees with Senator Wyden and wants to impose full and immediate worldwide taxation?

If you answered Hillary Clinton, you’re right. But if you answered Donald Trump, that also would be a correct answer.

This is a grim example of why I refer to them as the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of statism.

Though to be fair, Trump’s plan at least contains a big reduction in the corporate tax rate, which would substantially reduce the negative impact of a worldwide tax system.

The Wall Street Journal opines on the issue and is especially unimpressed by Hillary Clinton’s irresponsible approach on the issue.

Mrs. Clinton is targeting so-called inversions, where U.S.-based companies move their headquarters by buying an overseas competitor, as well as foreign takeovers of U.S. firms for tax considerations. These migrations are the result of a U.S. corporate-tax code that supplies incentives to migrate… The Democrat would impose what she calls an “exit tax” on businesses that relocate outside the U.S., which is the sort of thing banana republics impose when their economies sour. …Mrs. Clinton wants to build a tax wall to stop Americans from escaping. “If they want to go,” she threatened in Michigan, “they’re going to have to pay to go.”

Ugh, making companies “pay to go” is an unseemly sentiment. Sort of what you might expect from a place like Venezuela where politicians treat private firms as a source of loot for their cronies.

The WSJ correctly points out that the problem is America’s anti-competitive worldwide tax regime, combined with a punitive corporate tax rate.

…the U.S. taxes residents—businesses and individuals—on their world-wide income, not merely the income that they earned in the U.S. …the U.S. taxes companies headquartered in the U.S. far more than companies based in other countries. Thirty-one of the 34 OECD countries have cut corporate taxes since 2000, leaving the U.S. with the highest rate in the industrialized world. The U.S. system of world-wide taxation means that a company that moves from Dublin, Ohio, to Dublin, Ireland, will pay a rate that is less than a third of America’s. A dollar of profit earned on the Emerald Isle by an Irish-based company becomes 87.5 cents after taxes, which it can then invest in Ireland or the U.S. or somewhere else. But if the company stays in Ohio and makes the same buck in Ireland, the after-tax return drops to 65 cents or less if the money is invested in America.

In other words, the problem is obvious and the solution is obvious.

But there are too many Barack Obamas and Elizabeth Warrens in Washington, so it’s more likely that policy will move in the wrong direction.

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What’s the best measure of the tax burden on the U.S. economy?

Is it the amount of money that we’re forced to surrender to the knaves in Washington (i.e., the difference between our pre-tax income and post-tax consumption)?

Or is it the loss of economic output caused by high tax rates, distorting preferences, and pervasive double taxation (i.e., policies that reduce our pre-tax income)?

The answer is both.

But even that’s not sufficient. There’s another very big part of the tax burden, which is the complexity caused by a 75,000-page tax code that imposes very high compliance costs on taxpayers. In other words, the tax (as measured by time, resources, and energy) we pay for the ostensible privilege of paying taxes.

And this compliance tax is enormous according to new research from the Tax Foundation. The report starts with some very sobering numbers.

…In 1955, the Internal Revenue Code stood at 409,000 words. Since then, it has grown to a total of 2.4 million words: almost six times as long as it was in 1955 and almost twice as long as in 1985. However, the tax statutes passed by Congress are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tax complexity. There are roughly 7.7 million words of tax regulations, promulgated by the IRS over the last century, which clarify how the U.S. tax statutes work in practice. On top of that, there are almost 60,000 pages of tax-related case law, which are indispensable for accountants and tax lawyers trying to figure out how much their clients actually owe.

It then measures the burden of this convoluted system for taxpayers.

According to the latest estimates from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Americans will spend more than 8.9 billion hours complying with IRS tax filing requirements in 2016. This is equal to nearly 4.3 million full-time workers doing nothing but tax return paperwork. …in dollar terms, the 8.9 billion hours needed to comply with the tax code computes to $409 billion each year in lost productivity, or greater than the gross product of 36 states… The cost of complying with U.S. business income taxes accounts for 36 percent of the total cost of the entire tax code, at $147 billion. Complying with the individual income tax costs another $99 billion annually.

The report provides data for 50 provisions of the tax code. In the interest of brevity, here are the 10-most expensive features of the internal revenue code.

The overall $147 billion compliance cost for businesses is enormous, particularly when you consider that corporate tax revenue for Uncle Sam this year is estimated to be $329 billion. So companies have a double-whammy of enduring the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate, and they have to spend lots of money for the pleasure of that punitive system.

Another part that grabbed my attention is “Form 4562” dealing with depreciation. If you care about good policy and stronger growth, businesses shouldn’t even have to depreciate. Instead, we should have a policy of “expensing,” which is simply the common-sense approach of recognizing costs in the year they occur. So firms are paying a $23 billion-plus tax for the privilege of a policy that already punishes them for investing. Amazing.

And don’t forget the death tax, which also makes the top-10 list. The Tax Foundation points out that the compliance cost basically doubles the burden of that horrible and unfair levy.

The estate and gift tax, which will only collect approximately $20 billion in federal revenues this year, has a compliance cost of $19.6 billion.

What a mess.

So what’s the answer?

Simply stated, we should rip up the entire internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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Imagine if you had the chance to play basketball against a superstar from the NBA like Stephen Curry.

No matter how hard you practiced beforehand, you surely would lose.

For most people, that would be fine. We would console ourselves with the knowledge that we tried our best and relish he fact that we even got the chance to be on the same court as a professional player.

But some people would want to cheat to make things “equal” and “fair.” So they would say that the NBA player should have to play blindfolded, or while wearing high-heeled shoes.

And perhaps they could impose enough restrictions on the NBA player that they could prevail in a contest.

But most of us wouldn’t feel good about “winning” that kind of battle. We would be ashamed that our “victory” only occurred because we curtailed the talents of our opponent.

Now let’s think about this unseemly tactic in the context of corporate taxation and international competitiveness.

The United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world, combined with having the most onerous “worldwide” tax system among all developed nations.

This greatly undermines the ability of U.S.-domiciled companies to compete in world markets and it’s the main reason why so many companies feel the need to engage in inversions.

So how does the Obama Administration want to address these problems? What’s their plan to reform the system to that American-based firms can better compete with companies from other countries?

Unfortunately, there’s no desire to make the tax code more competitive. Instead, the Obama Administration wants to change the laws to make it less attractive to do business in other nations. Sort of the tax version of hobbling the NBA basketball player in the above example.

Here are some of the details from the Treasury Department’s legislative wish list.

The Administration proposes to supplement the existing subpart F regime with a per-country minimum tax on the foreign earnings of entities taxed as domestic C corporations (U.S. corporations) and their CFCs. …Under the proposal, the foreign earnings of a CFC or branch or from the performance of services would be subject to current U.S. taxation at a rate (not below zero) of 19 percent less 85 percent of the per-country foreign effective tax rate (the residual minimum tax rate). …The minimum tax would be imposed on current foreign earnings regardless of whether they are repatriated to the United States.

There’s a lot of jargon in those passages, and even more if you click on the underlying link.

So let’s augment by excerpting some of the remarks, at a recent Brookings Institution event, by the Treasury Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Tax Affairs. Robert Stack was pushing the President’s agenda, which would undermine American companies by making it difficult for them to benefit from good tax policy in other jurisdictions.

He actually argued, for instance, that business tax reform should be “more than a cry to join the race to the bottom.”

In other words, he doesn’t (or, to be more accurate, his boss doesn’t) want to fix what’s wrong with the American tax code.

So he doesn’t seem to care that other nations are achieving good results with lower corporate tax rates.

I do not buy into the notion that the U.S. must willy-nilly do what everyone else is doing.

And he also criticizes the policy of “deferral,” which is a provision of the tax code that enables American-based companies to delay the second layer of tax that the IRS imposes on income that is earned (and already subject to tax) in other jurisdictions.

I don’t think it’s open to debate that the ability of US multinationals to defer income has been a dramatic contributor to global tax instability.

He doesn’t really explain why it is destabilizing for companies to protect themselves against a second layer of tax that shouldn’t exist.

But he does acknowledge that there are big supply-side responses to high tax rates.

…large disparity in income tax rates…will inevitably drive behavior.

Too bad he doesn’t draw the obvious lesson about the benefits of low tax rates.

Anyhow, here’s what he says about the President’s tax scheme.

The President’s global minimum tax proposal…permits tax-free repatriation of amounts earned in countries taxed at rates above the global minimum rate. …the global minimum tax plan also takes the benefit out of shifting income into low and no-tax jurisdictions by requiring that the multinational pay to the US the difference between the tax haven rate and the U.S. rate.

The bottom line is that American companies would be taxed by the IRS for doing business in low-tax jurisdictions such as Ireland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Bermuda.

But if they do business in high-tax nations such as France, there’s no extra layer of tax.

The bottom line is that the U.S. tax code would be used to encourage bad policy in other countries.

Though Mr. Stack sees that as a feature rather than a bug, based on the preposterous assertion that other counties will grow faster if the burden of government spending is increased.

…the global minimum tax concept has an added benefit as well…protecting developing and low-income countries…so they can mobilize the necessary resources to grow their economies.

And he seems to think that support from the IMF is a good thing rather than (given that bureaucracy’s statist orientation) a sign of bad policy.

At a recent IMF symposium, the minimum tax was identified as something that could be of great help.

The bottom line is that the White House and the Treasury Department are fixated at hobbling competitors by encouraging higher tax rates around the world and making sure that American-based companies are penalized with an extra layer of tax if they do business in low-tax jurisdictions

For what it’s worth, the right approach, both ethically and economically, is for American policy makers to focus on fixing what’s wrong with the American tax system.

P.S. When I debunked Jeffrey Sachs on the “race to the bottom,” I showed that lower tax rates do not mean lower tax revenue.

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I’m a bleeding heart libertarian in that I get most upset about statist policies that make life harder for disadvantaged people so that folks with more money can get undeserved goodies.

  • For instance, I despise anti-school choice leftists because they value political support from teacher unions more than they value opportunity for poor kids.
  • And I get very agitated that about the Export-Import Bank, which is a form of corporate welfare that transfers money from the general population to the rich.

Another example is occupational licensing, which occurs when politicians require newcomers to jump through expensive and/or time-consuming hoops before getting “permission” to provide a good or service. These licensing rules create unjust profits for established businesses by hindering competition, and they are especially burdensome for poor people, all of which is explained in this superb video from the Institute for Justice.

But if there’s a sliver lining to that dark cloud, it’s this image that I will add to my collection of libertarian humor. To be fair, I don’t know if it counts as purely libertarian humor, but I saw it on Reddit‘s libertarian page and it definitely makes the right points.

If you like libertarian humor, both pro and con, click here, here, and here for other examples.

P.S. Let’s close by sharing some good news on a serious topic.

Unlike the short-sighted politicians in the United States, the crowd in Australia seems a bit more level-headed on the issue of competitive corporate taxation. Here are some excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Guardian.

The Turnbull government has given big business exactly what it wants – a substantial tax cut. It has also extended the Abbott government’s small business tax package by giving small and medium businesses more tax cuts and incentives. …“Our corporate tax rate is high by international standards and well above the average for OECD countries and those in the Asian region,” the budget papers say. “This will make Australian companies more internationally competitive in a tough global market place.” The government plans to cut the corporate tax rate significantly, from 30% to 25%. …The cut will be phased in over 10 years… The treasurer, Scott Morrison, says treasury modelling suggests the measures will grow the economy by 1% over the long term. He says they will lead to higher living standards, via increased business investment and more jobs.

I certainly don’t think “significantly” is a word to describe a modest five-percentage-point reduction in the rate, but kudos to Aussie politicians for moving in the right direction. I also like the part about “treasury modelling,” which suggests that the Australians also have a sensible approach on the issue of static scoring vs. dynamic scoring.

So perhaps now you can understand why Australia is my choice if (when?) the welfare state collapses in the United States (though I’m still of the opinion that the Swiss are the world’s most sensible people).

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