The complex and punitive tax treatment of U.S. corporate income creates incentives for firms to seek relief through various maneuvers. According to the TaxProf Blog, quoting KPMG, the U.S. corporate tax rate is the highest among industrialized countries and the second highest in the world. U.S. corporations are taxed on profits earned overseas, which is disadvantageous relative to so-called “territorial” tax systems. Corporate income is taxed twice, as well: once as corporate income and again when income is paid to shareholders, though often at a favorable “qualified dividend” rate (and double taxation of dividends is not uncommon internationally). Of course, there are myriad provisions in the tax code that reduce the severity of the corporate tax bite by providing deductions (some of which are mentioned at the first link). But the code is quite complex and it creates unnecessary compliance costs; on balance, it provides compelling reasons for corporations to attempt to shift income overseas to obtain more favorable treatment. A growing number of firms have engaged in so-called corporate “tax inversions,” which involve shifting ownership to an overseas corporate parent. This is said to represent a threat to the U.S. tax base, and it has recently captured the attention of the media.
What should be done about this trend? The first link above, from the TaxProf, discusses two options: “… a general reform of the U.S. corporate tax and specific provisions to deal with tax-motivated international mergers.” The first option would involve a vastly simpler tax code, with fewer and less generous deductions and lower tax rates. That change would be desirable if only to reduce compliance costs, but it could also be used to make the U.S. tax code more competitive internationally. A strong case can be made for eliminating the corporate income tax entirely, based on the likely favorable impact on employment, wages and international competitiveness that it would engender.
The second option mentioned in connection with reducing tax inversions involves more targeted measures which do nothing to reduce the complexity of the tax code. Apparently, the Treasury is investigating a “long list” of alternative administrative actions to discourage inversions. Again, from the TaxProf:
The President’s FY2015 budget proposes to treat all mergers as U.S. firms if the U.S. firm’s shareholders have 50% or more ownership of the combined firm or maintains management and control in the United States. Similar legislation has also been introduced in the 113th Congress.
Public attention may have discouraged Walgreens from pursuing an inversion, and the Obama administration is clearly “jawboning” in an effort to stop the activity.
Finally, Jonathan Alter wants U.S. corporations to take “loyalty oaths” to prevent them from seeking out inversion opportunities. This proposal is certainly “creepy,” as noted by J.D. Tuccille in Reason Magazine. Loyalty oaths? Seriously? From Tuccille:
… this whole “economic patriotism” crusade starts at a bad place and spirals down into a cesspool. So, if that’s the model you work from…
To make it clear where this all goes, the National Recovery Administration once boasted, “The Fascist Principles are very similar to those we have been evolving here in America.” Its head, Hugh Johnson, noted about the adoption or rejection of the blue eagle symbol and its code, “Those who are not with us are against us.”
Where else might this go? Will “buy American” form the basis of a loyalty oath of some kind? What tax consequences might await violators? What other forms of cooperation with intrusive authorities might be enforced in this way? David Harsanyi has some interesting thoughts on the question of “properly channeled nationalism”:
It’s worth remembering that when Alter proposes that Obama discipline companies that have done nothing illegal or illegitimate, he’s simply taking Obama’s “economic patriotism” to its next logical step. He wants the administration to threaten the close “easy access to American markets” companies enjoy. And really, haven’t we all suffered enough with all this unhindered access to affordable goods, exotic merchandise and cool gadgets? Samsung. Honda. Toyota. Nestle. GlaxoSmithKline. Do you believe shoppers concern themselves with the fact that Food Lion is subsidiary of a Belgium company? I suspect that most Americans, in their everyday lives, don’t care where their favorite companies are situated, because intuitively they understand the benefits of trade.
Too many times already, I have heard statements implying disloyalty after daring to criticize the president’s initiatives. That’s a very bad sign. The U.S. achieved greatness in large part because it offered basic freedoms in personal, social and economic life. Decisions about what and with whom to do business, though not completely free of government interference, must be a person’s own, even in voluntary association with others (as in the corporate form). People should be free to transfer their assets abroad or to sell their assets to anyone, regardless of domicile. If this is a desirable place to live and do business, such freedoms should never be a source of concern. In fact, with a tax code that is simpler and more competitive, it could never be anything but a source of strength.