by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The nominal corporate-income-tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, the highest in the developed world. That’s the on-paper rate. The effective corporate-income-tax rate — i.e., the actual rate — is . . . a matter of some dispute, but Martin A. Sullivan, a highly regarded economist specializing in taxation, puts it around 28 percent. Others have estimated the rate to be much lower: A Government Accountability (ha!) Office study put the figure at about 13 percent.
Let’s put it at 0.00 percent. …
… Corporations can do a few different things with their profits: They can pay them out to shareholders as dividends; they can keep them on hand to use as working capital, which is fairly common in highly cyclical industries; they can reinvest them in the company in the hopes of making it more productive; they can use them for other business purposes such as acquisitions and stock buybacks. Each of those uses of profit will, if successful, produce taxable income for individuals. Dividends are taxed at the capital-gains rate. Reinvesting in the firm or expanding it is intended to raise the company’s value, and thus the value of its shares, also producing taxable capital gains for shareholders. Stock buybacks are intended to raise share prices (companies generally buy back their stock when they believe it to be underpriced), which also would produce a taxable capital gain. At 15 percent, the capital-gains rate is lower than the corporate tax rate, but profits would nonetheless be taxed — once, as opposed to the double taxation of the current regime, under which the IRS dings the same money twice, as corporate income and as capital gains.
What would result from abolition, in Williamson’s estimation?
First, there would be a sharp, ugly increase in unemployment — among corporate tax lawyers, whose financial well-being is of about as much interest to thinking people as that of the fungus that causes athlete’s foot. They are a both a symptom and a cause of the disease that is the tax code.
Second, U.S.-based businesses would immediately save billions of dollars and countless man-hours otherwise diverted to tax-compliance work. General Electric could go back to being the “Imagination at Work” guys instead of a gigantic tax-law firm with a manufacturing subsidiary.
Third, that corporate cash hoard that so incenses the Left could come home. U.S. businesses are holding trillions of dollars in cash overseas — estimates of how much run from about $2 trillion to nearly $8 trillion. They do this mostly to avoid the U.S. corporate income tax. Shareholders would like for that money to end up in their bank accounts — they are, after all, the owners of those profits. Businesses might also like to use it to invest in making their enterprises more profitable. Where might they invest it? There are many things that go into that calculation, but if the world’s largest national economy happened to be attached to a country with a corporate tax rate of 0.00 percent, that would offer some real attraction.
Fourth, we should expect a great deal of investment in U.S. companies and U.S. assets. If we’re so all-fired worried about tax inversions, why not invert the incentives? If the relatively low taxes of Canada or Switzerland are enough to lure U.S. firms overseas, then a zero tax rate, combined with zero tax-compliance costs, ought to lure some investors here. Don’t bemoan the corporate tax haven; be the corporate tax haven.