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Another year, another campaign to give even bigger breaks to corporations and claim that this will create jobs. In 2014, the campaign opened with a January 5 op-ed by Laurence Kotlikoff in the New York Times titled, “Abolish the Corporate Income Tax.”
Before getting into Kotlikoff’s argument, let’s just remember a few reasons why we have a corporate income tax.
First, the personal income tax would have an enormous loophole for the rich if we didn’t also have a corporate income tax. A business that is structured as a corporation can hold onto its profits for years before paying them out to its shareholders, who only then (if ever) will pay personal income tax on the income. With no corporate income tax, high-income people could create shell corporations to indefinitely defer paying individual income taxes on much of their income.
Second, even when corporate profits are paid out (as stock dividends), only a third are paid to individuals rather than to tax-exempt entities not subject to the personal income tax. In other words, if not for the corporate income tax, most corporate profits would never be taxed.
Third, the corporate income tax is ultimately borne by shareholders and therefore is a very progressive tax, which means repealing it would result in a less progressive tax system.
This last point deserves emphasis. Proponents of corporate tax breaks 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 investment (and thus jobs) offshore. But 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 (owners of corporate stocks and business assets), who mostly have high incomes. This makes the corporate tax a very progressive tax.
For example, the Department of the Treasury concludes that 82 percent of the corporate tax is borne by the owners of capital. As a result, the richest one percent of Americans pay 43 percent of the tax, and the richest 5 percent pay 58 percent of the tax.
But Kotlikoff argues that our corporate income tax chases investment out of the U.S. and his simplistic answer is to repeal the tax altogether. He writes that, “To avoid our federal corporate tax, they [corporations] can, and often do, move their operations and jobs abroad,” and cites the well-known case of Apple booking profits offshore.
But Apple is a perfect example of a corporation that does not actually move many jobs offshore but rather is engaging in accounting gimmicks to make its U.S. profits appear to be generated in offshore tax havens. These gimmicks take advantage of the rule allowing American corporations to “defer” (delay indefinitely) paying U.S. corporate income taxes on the profits they claim to earn abroad. Lawmakers will end these abuses when they see that voters’ anger over corporate tax loopholes is even more powerful than the corporate lobby.
Kotlikoff has constructed a computer model that purports to prove that the economy would benefit greatly from cuts in the corporate income tax. But any such model relies on assumptions about how corporations would respond to changes in tax policy. Economists have failed to demonstrate a link between lower corporate taxes and economic growth over the past several decades that would justify the assumptions Kotlikoff uses.
In fact, Kotlikoff’s assumptions are at odds with the historical record. As former Reagan Treasury official, J. Gregory Ballentine, once told Business Week, “It’s very difficult to find much relationship between [corporate tax breaks] and investment. In 1981 manufacturing had its largest tax cut ever and immediately went down the tubes. In 1986 they had their largest tax increase and went gangbusters [on investment].”
In any event, the U.S. corporate tax is effectively already among the lowest in the developed world because of its many loopholes. According to the Department of the Treasury, federal corporate tax revenue in the U.S. was equal to 1.3 percent of our economy in 2010 (1.6 percent if you include state corporate taxes). The average for OECD countries (which include most of the developed countries) besides the U.S. was 2.8 percent.