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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"The Greek Menace"

Some responses to the Tax Foundation's announcement of a new campaign called Compete USA which claims high corporate tax rates are hurting US competitiveness. First, Paul Krugman:

The Greek menace, by Paul Krugman: ...All our corporate investment are belong to … Greece?

Run for the hills! Excessive taxes on corporations are threatening American prosperity, because we can’t match the low, low taxes of other advanced countries. Or so says the Tax Foundation, which is rolling out a new campaign called Compete USA. John McCain has already made big cuts in corporate taxes a big part of his agenda.

There’s a lot to say about this stuff, but right now I’d just like to mention one aspect. The Tax Foundation people start off with a graph that’s supposed to be terrifying, with the headline “Europe cuts rates while U.S. stands still”; the graph shows European tax rates dropping far below the US rate.

What they don’t make clear is that:

1. The graph shows the “statutory” tax rate, which is the maximum rate a corporation can pay in principle. But because corporate tax rules allow all kinds of deductions and exclusions, the statutory rate is a poor guide to the actual disincentives the corporate tax creates.

2. Even more important, while they don’t explain how they calculate the “average” tax rate, the fact that their own data show that all the big economies have tax rates above 30%, while their graph shows an average rate of about 27%, seems to indicated that they’re showing us an unweighted average — that is, one that makes small economies like Ireland and Greece seem as important as big economies like Japan and Germany. And whaddya know, corporate taxes in big economies tend to be similar to those in the United States, a point made by the Congressional Budget Office in the study from which the chart above is drawn. (Yes Germany cut rates this year. Big deal.)

So basically, the Tax Foundation wants us to be frightened of the Greek menace. How can American business survive in a world in which Greek corporations have a big tax advantage?

Next, from Linda Beale:

Tax Foundation and Competitive Environments: more bunk!, by ataxingmatter: The Tax Foundation is busy again pushing its latest propaganda idea--that the US has such high corporate taxes that it stifles competition and hurts our economy--with a new "competeusa.com" organization.

Wrong. Fact is, though our tax laws include statutory rates that are fairly high (35% for corporations earning about $18 million or more annually) but generally in the same ballpark as those of other developed western nations, the actual tax rates paid by US corporations are extraordinarily low, around 6%. Remember the latest GAO report (reported elsewhere on ataxingmatter) that shows that two-thirds of US corporations pay no federal income tax. That's not just the ones that are losing money, but also many corporations that have record high profits (including some Big Oil companies) that end up paying next to nothing in taxes.

That's because the statutory rate of 35% is only on paper. Corporations engage in aggressive tax planning that cheats the system, and they take advantage of a bountiful number of lucrative loopholes built into the system under the four decades of Reagan-style corporate favoritism and deregulation, including items such as accelerated depreciation, various expensing provisions that let corporations deduct before they really have an economic cost, and the lucrative research & development credit that lowers taxes dollar-for-dollar for R&D expenditures that corporations have to do anyway (so they do not serve as an incentive to greater development) and that corporations have often already done prior to the enactment of the one-year "extensions" of the credit that have been taking place as transitions to no-credit for years.

As a result, the US is actually a corporate tax haven, with the lowest effective corporate tax rates of almost all the countries that participate in the OECD. That's a little fact that the Tax Foundation apparently doesn't want the American public to understand, since all its hype is in terms of statutory rates and not in terms of effective tax rates.

Now, the Tax Foundation does put out a figure for the amount of corporate taxes collected--a little more than $300 billion. But it doesn't provide the historical context--the share of federal revenues paid by corporate taxes has decreased substantially, while the share of overall revenues provided by everybody else (including the little guys through payroll taxes, among other means) has increased.

The Tax Foundation does something else it often tends to do in setting out its propaganda: quote one source as a definitive authority, without mentioning conflicting conclusions from other respectable sources. The Tax Foundation wants employees to believe that they are the ones who "really" pay corporate taxes come. But we don't know the incidence of the corporate tax, and there are a number of conflicting studies. Even the studies that exist make a number of assumptions that may bring their conclusions into doubt. Many experts think it is primarily the shareholders (of course, that's also the claim of many of the right-leaning organizations like the Tax Foundation when they are arguing for eliminating corporate taxation because, they claim, it amounts to "double taxation" of the same earnings when shareholders are taxed on their investments). But it may be predominantly consumers, or workers, or creditors, or so diffuse that it isn't borne by any one segment of the economy. What we do know is that many corporations have been making very high profits and paying low taxes, and that the corporate contribution to the fisc is considerably less as a percentage of GDP than it used to be, at the same time that wealthy US taxpayers are paying astoundingly low overall effective tax rates on their income, including very low rates on their income from capital, while they are garnering an ever larger share of the income pie.

Instead of talking about a need to reduce corporate tax rates, the Tax Foundation should be answering the following question: if low corporate taxes are the key to success, how does the Tax Foundation explain that very favorably taxed US corporations--like Big Pharma, Big Oil, and of course Big Banks--that pay among the lowest tax rates in the developed world, still claim they need more government subsidies in order to successfully compete against their international counterparts (or each other, in many cases). Isn't this just another one of those straw-man arguments claiming a "need" to reduce US taxes for the "public" good, when the real goal is to eliminate taxes on corporations and on income from capital, so that wealthy corporate owners and managers can continue to garner a larger and larger share of the nation's income?

What US corporations need is more long-term thinking and less of the mentality ,that has reigned for decades, that leads to restructuring to build profits into hedge funds and equity joint ventures and managers and shareholders, but not leaving much on the table to build long-term commercial success. It's not a tax cut these corporations need, but cuts to the drivel at the top (executives earning in half a day what their average employees earn in an entire year) and more committed participation in the community and nation that has made their incredible success possible.

I hope Americans are too smart to buy more of this propaganda that is part and parcel of the deceptive marketing of the corporatist state. It's time to recognize the power that corporatism gives to wealthy owners and managers of corporations and set the rules to benefit the public good, rather than the wealthy few.

As Dean Baker notes, the Washington Post has been pushing the same line:

Washington Post Misleads Readers to Push for Lower Corporate Tax Rates, Beat the Press: The Washington Post editorial page has no qualms about making up data to further its agenda. ... Most newspapers might feel embarrassment about using such a blatant misrepresentation to push its preferred policies, but not the Post.

Today, the preferred policy is further reductions in corporate income taxes. To advance this agenda the Post tells readers that, "U.S. companies operating abroad already labor under a bigger tax burden than most foreign competitors."

That's not what the OECD says. Data from the OECD show that in the average member country corporate taxes are equal to about 3.5 percent of GDP. In the United States, corporate taxes have generally been between and 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent of GDP over the last two decades, according to the Congressional Budget Office (Table F-4).

    Posted by on Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 12:42 PM in Economics, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (47)


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