Facts & Fiction: That “Terrible” Corporate Tax Burden

individual and corporate taxes

One of the reasons I became a faithful reader of Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars is that he disdains the euphemisms that “polite” commentators use to convey their criticisms, and simply tells it like it is. A good example is a recent post about the “confusion”–or deliberate obfuscation–surrounding discussions of corporate tax rates.

As he began,

Republicans love to claim that America’s corporate taxes are the highest in the developed world. This is a lie. The marginal tax rates, up to 35%, are among the highest. The actual rates paid are a fraction of that. In fact, some of the most profitable companies in the world pay no federal taxes at all.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy used the tax information filed by  258 profitable Fortune 500 companies to analyze what those corporations actually paid. The companies chosen for the analysis collectively earned more than $3.8 trillion in profits over the eight-year period of the analysis.

Although the top corporate rate is 35 percent, the study found that 100 of the companies  — nearly 40 percent — paid zero taxes in at least one year between 2008 and 2015.

Eighteen, including General Electric, International Paper, Priceline.com and PG&E, incurred a total federal income tax bill of less than zero over the entire eight-year period — meaning they received rebates.

This result was entirely legal. The companies simply took advantage of numerous loopholes in the tax code. Some, including American Electric Power, Con Ed and Comcast, qualified for accelerated depreciation. That allowed them to write off most of the costs of  new equipment and machinery well before it wore out–or in “tax speak,” well before before the end of its “useful life.”

Facebook, Aetna and Exxon Mobil, among others, saved billions in taxes by giving options to top executives to buy stock in the future at a discount. The companies then get to deduct their huge payouts as a loss. Facebook used excess tax benefits from stock options to reduce its federal and state taxes by $5.78 billion from 2010 to 2015, the institute found.

As Ed reminds us, “In the 1950s, corporate taxes were about one-third of all federal revenue; today, it’s under 10%. And the burden is then transferred to individual taxpayers.”

Conservative economists will remind us that ultimately, individual consumers will pay corporate taxes–that the taxes companies pay will be factored into the prices of the goods they sell. And that is absolutely true. But it is a far fairer and much more honest way to do business.

The prices of consumer goods should reflect the actual cost of producing them, and taxes are–or should be– part of that cost. We don’t want the manufacturer who is “disposing” of his waste illegally to be able to undercut the prices of the guy who is following the rules, and we don’t want companies with more “creative” tax avoidance strategies to undercut competitors who are paying their fair share . Capitalist markets only work properly when pricing is honest.

Our current system doesn’t reward innovation; it rewards “game playing.” Lobbyists sneak arcane loopholes into our increasingly complicated tax code. Those loopholes further tilt the playing field, distorting market forces in ways that favor the companies that  can afford the lobbyists.

I’m all in favor of lowering the top marginal corporate tax rate, if we get rid of the loopholes at the same time. (We should start with those that provide an incentive for moving American businesses to off-shore tax havens–but we shouldn’t stop there.)

The current system allows corporations to whine about the tax rate in public, while making out like bandits behind the scenes. It’s dishonest, it’s anti-competitive, and it shifts the tax burden in ways that are unfair to individual taxpayers and a drag on the economy.

A responsible Congress would eliminate or dramatically reduce the loopholes and readjust the tax burden. Our Congress, however, is too busy making the system worse.

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on March 16, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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