How to cut corporate tax rates without losing that sweet, sweet revenue
You may have heard that a fair number of American corporations aren't so keen on being American anymore.
Just this week, Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls announced it would merge Tyco, which is based in Ireland, allowing it to take advantage of the country's lower corporate tax rate. It's a gambit called a "tax inversion." Basically, a bigger American company merges with a smaller company located elsewhere so that, on paper, it's "based" in the lower tax country. This generally changes little-to-nothing of the company's operations.
The practice has risen in recent years and is now attracting considerably political ire: A 2014 estimate from Congress projected tax inversions would lose the government $33.6 billion in revenue over the next decade. The New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin reported that at least a dozen more deals comparable to Tycho-Johnson Controls are in the works. And Hillary Clinton already has proposed a set of rules to discourage the practice.
But tax inversions are also just one small part of a much larger reality. In the modern world, corporate legal forms and holdings of capital can move internationally far easier than human beings. And corporations can pay very talented people oodles of money to figure out ever new ways to game legal rules and tax rates. The result is that big companies can often effectively "shop" for the lowest corporate tax rates. This led Sorkin to conclude that, "ultimately, the only way inversions will stop is when the corporate tax code changes so it becomes more attractive for American companies to be American companies."
This is the ever-elusive goal of corporate tax reform. And a few things need to be said on it.
First, know that on paper, the United States' federal tax rate on corporate profits is 35 percent — which can get knocked up to 39.1 percent by various state taxes. This really is quite high compared to other countries.
Except the U.S. corporate tax code is shot through with more loopholes than Swiss cheese, making the "on paper" rate basically meaningless. Some companies pay it, some pay less, some lucky ones pay nothing, and a few very lucky ones get net money back from the government. A 2012 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office found that, since the late 1980s, the actual percentage of their domestic profits that corporations lose to taxes actually averages around 25.6 percent. A 2011 analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice found that America's corporate tax revenue, as a share of our economy, was lower than pretty much every other advanced country.
The basic pitch behind reforming the corporate income tax is that you clear out the loopholes and lower the "on paper" 35 percent rate — thus making staying in America more attractive for companies while simultaneously preserving the tax's revenue. But in reality, this would likely make America a less attractive place for the many, many companies enjoying these loopholes. The total effect of companies moving and staying would be a wash, at best.
In fact, the only way to make headquartering in America more attractive to all companies across the board would be to gut corporate tax revenue further, by lowering the headline rate even more than simply clearing out the loopholes would ostensibly allow for. This is why a lot of skeptics of "corporate tax reform" view it as a backdoor method to just cutting corporate taxes.
But let me totally play devil's advocate here. What if we did that? This is where stuff gets interesting.
First off, corporations are taxed on their profits. But profits are also what pay dividends on corporate stock. That's where profits go: to shareholders. So the government actually hits this stream of revenue twice: once when it taxes corporations, and again when it taxes dividends to shareholders. This is the source of the "double taxation" charge you may have heard of.
So what if we lowered corporate tax rates while upping the taxes on dividends? Right now, dividends break down into qualified and non-qualified dividends, based on various metrics. Non-qualified dividends are taxed as ordinary income, while qualified dividends are taxed at special lower rates. So this offers an enticing possibility. We could actually just tax all dividends as ordinary income — which we actually briefly did during the Reagan administration. Of course, America had historically low tax rates on ordinary income at the time. But there's no reason we couldn't tax all dividends as ordinary income, while returning to the much higher marginal income tax rates we had on high earners mid-century, for example.
Capital gains are a little different — they're what people make selling stocks and other forms of capital to each other, rather than the dividends they get from businesses — but capital gains are also often taxed at a special low rate. We could simply fold them into regular income while returning to the mid-century rates as well.
This would actually make a lot of sense, since 80 percent of stocks are owned by the wealthiest 10 percent of individuals. And the stock buyback revolution has massively increased the total amount fo cash corporations are spitting out to shareholders. Folding dividends and capital gains back into the definition of regular income, plus a return to high marginal tax rates on the upper incomes, would capture a lot of those money flows.
If you're up for cutting the corporate income tax, but still want to recoup the revenue, this would be the way to do it.