Update: In writing the following post, I neglected to devote sufficient attention to the rules that would govern taxation of pass-through income under the House GOP tax plan. Those rules significantly alter some of the conclusions below. Those rules are discussed in a later post: Stumbling Through Pass-Through Tax Reform.
Double taxation of corporate income is a feature of the U.S. income tax code that is partially addressed in the tax reform bill proposed by the House GOP. Corporate income is taxed to the firm and again to owners on their receipt of dividends or when a company’s growth results in capital gains. Ultimately, the total rate of taxation matters more than whether it is implemented as single or double taxation of income flows. However, there is an unfortunate tendency to view corporate taxes as if they are levied on entitites wholly separate from their owners, so double taxation carries a stench of politically sneakiness. It also creates multiple distortions in the decisions of investors and the separately managed firms they own.
Non-corporate income taxation is reduced by the House plan even more substantially than the cut in taxes on corporate-derived income. However, the plan does not reduce taxes on high-earning professionals, many of whom are situated similarly to successful business owners and investors from an economic perspective.
Tax Burdens and Distortions
The federal corporate tax is not borne 100% by shareholders, as discussed in the previous post on Sacred Cow Chips. Some part of the burden is borne by labor via reduced wages. It is difficult to correct for this distortion in terms of calculating an effective marginal tax rate on corporate income. For example, suppose a new 35% tax would reduce corporate income from $100 to $65. The firm finds, however, that it can reduce wage payments by half of the expected tax payment, or $17.50. The firm would now earn $117.50 before tax and $76.38 after tax. Relative to the new level of pre-tax income, the tax rate is still 35%. It is no less than that by way of the reduction in wages, though the impact on the firm’s pre-tax income is mitigated.
The discussion here of tax rates, and even double taxation, is not intended as commentary on tax fairness. It might or might not be fair that the burden of the tax is shared with labor. Instead, the issue is the magnitude of the economic distortions caused by taxes. Tax rates themselves are a reasonable starting point for such a discussion, and they are easy to measure. Lower tax rates beget fewer distortions in economic outcomes than high tax rates. Low rates provide greater incentives to save and invest in productive assets, which enhances labor productivity, wages, and economic growth. Indeed, businesses go to great lengths to avoid taxes altogether, if possible, but typically those are non-productive uses of resources, which demonstrates the very distortions at issue.
Current and Proposed Marginal Tax Rates
Under current law, the top personal income tax rate on dividends is 20%. It is 23.8% if we include the Obamacare surtax. Adding that to the corporate rate yields the effective top tax rate paid by shareholders: 23.8% + 35% = 58.8%. The GOP bill does not alter the 23.8% top rate on dividends or capitals gains. By virtue of the corporate tax reduction, however, the plan would reduce the overall top rate on shareholders to 23.8% + 20% = 43.8%.
The income earned by investors in pass-through entities like proprietorships, partnerships and S-corporations is taxed as personal income under current law at rates ranging from 15% to 39.6% (43.4% at the top, including the surtax). Thus, under present law, the owner of a pass-through company is taxed less heavily at the top rate than the owner of a public company (43.4% vs. 58.8%). (I am ignoring the 15.3% FICA payroll tax owed by self-emloyed individuals in proprietorships or partnerships on incomes up to $127,200, and 2.9% above that level. The combined tax rates would be almost equal even if we include the FICA tax.)
The tax on pass-through business income would be reduced under the GOP bill via a cap of 25% on federal business income taxes. Presumably, this cap would nullify the House plan’s “bubble tax” of 6% on personal income between $1.2 million and $1.6 million of income, as well as the Obamacare surtax. Thus, the tax advantage for pass-through entities over corporations would be somewhat wider under the House plan than under current law (25% vs. 43.4%). (The FICA tax on owners of proprietorships and partnerships would not quite equalize the overall marginal tax rates over a certain income range.)
In addition, the House plan rewards the owners of pass-through businesses relative to individuals earning high levels of wage and salary income. If anything, the bill would penalize these individuals. For example, while the owner of a high-earning pass-through would face a 25% tax rate, a high-earning professional or corporate employee would pay the top marginal rate (39.6%) plus the surtax (3.8%) and possibly the bubble tax (6%). This is one reason why Scott Sumner says it looks as if the House plan was designed by Bernie Sanders!
The tax system should be neutral across different sources of income. Divergent effective tax rates on owners of corporations, pass-throughs, and high wage-earning individuals is undesirable and introduces arbitrary elements into private decision-making. If anything, the House GOP tax plan exacerbates those differences. By cutting marginal tax rates, it would reduce the magnitude of business tax distortions both for corporate and pass-through organizations and their owners, but the relative advantage of pass-throughs would increase relative to corporations, and owners of corporations and pass-throughs benefit relative to high-earning individuals. Let’s hope this is fixed as the bill evolves, but more balanced reductions in rates would require higher rates on business owners than contemplated in the current plan.