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One question that comes up in debates about the corporate income tax is who pays it. Even though the corporate tax is officially paid by corporations, all taxes are ultimately paid by actual people.
It is clear that the corporate tax is, in the short term, borne by the owners of capital — meaning it’s paid by the owners of corporate stocks and other business and investment assets because the tax reduces what corporations can pay out as dividends to their shareholders. But those who promote corporate tax breaks sometimes argue that in the long-term the tax is actually borne by labor — by workers who ultimately suffer lower wages or unemployment because the corporate tax allegedly pushes production activity offshore.
Most experts who have examined the question believe that investment is not entirely mobile in this way and that the vast majority of the corporate tax is borne by the owners of capital, who mostly (but not exclusively) have high incomes. This makes the corporate tax a very progressive tax.
For example, the Department of Treasury concluded that 82 percent of the corporate tax is borne by the owners of capital. According to Treasury, this results in the corporate income tax being distributed as illustrated in the table to the right, which shows that the richest one percent of Americans pay 43 percent of the tax while the richest 5 percent pay 58 percent of the tax. These figures were used by CTJ to estimate the distribution of tax increases resulting from corporate loophole-closing in our new comprehensive tax reform proposal.
Treasury’s findings are similar to those of other analysts. The Tax Policy Center, for example, has concluded that 80 percent of the corporate income tax is borne by the owners of capital.
Two weeks ago, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), the official revenue estimators for Congress, announced that it would finally include corporate income taxes in its distributional tables showing the effects of proposed tax changes. This will make JCT’s analyses more consistent with other analyses (including CTJ’s), and will mean that lawmakers will no longer get a free pass in JCT’s distributional tables when they enact regressive corporate tax cuts.
In conjuction with its announcement, JCT published a report estimating that in the short-run all of any change in the corporate tax will benefit or burden owners of capital, while in the long-run 75 percent of a corporate tax change will affect owners of capital (and the rest will affect labor income).
JCT’s conclusion is not all that different from the conclusions of others, but some observers seem to think it is “news” and have misinterpreted its importance. For example, Bruce Bartlett, who typically has a lot of insightful things to say about taxes, wildly misinterprets JCT’s conclusion:
Politically, it is now easier to show that a cut in the corporate tax rate will have benefits that are broadly shared, especially by those with incomes below $30,000. Conversely, it means that the Obama administration’s plan to raise new revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes will have a harder time gaining traction, because much of the burden will fall on those with low incomes.
This is all wrong. Bartlett includes some tables from the JCT report in his piece but fails to include the table that actually matters, which is at the top of page 27 and is titled “Distribution of a $10 Billion per Year Increase in Corporate Income Taxes.” This table shows JCT’s estimates of how much taxes would go up for taxpayers at different income levels in each of the next 11 years. JCT’s figures are in millions of dollars, but with some simple arithmetic, we can calculate the share of a corporate tax increase paid by each of the income groups that JCT presents. We focus on the first and last year that JCT analyzes, to show both the immediate and longer-term impacts.
The result is the table below, which shows that under JCT’s assumptions, over half of a corporate income tax increase would be paid by people with income exceeding $200,000. Well over three-fourths would be paid by people with incomes exceeding $100,000. Only about 6 percent would be paid by the 55 percent of taxpayers earning less than $50,000, whose average tax increase from a $10 billion corporate tax hike would be only $7.
In other words, any provision that raises revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes will have a progressive impact, meaning it will increase the share of taxes paid by high-income people.
Low- and middle-income Americans will be hurt by proposals being debated like cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and proposals recently put into effect like sequestration of funds for Head Start. It would be far better for lawmakers to achieve whatever savings they think are necessary by closing corporate tax loopholes, because very little of the resulting tax increase would be paid by low- and middle-income Americans.