Few things transform us into frustrated baboons like navigating Turbotax each year. It’s incredible any computers physically survive April.
First there’s the maddening fact, when all is said and done, that the U.S. has something approaching a flat tax system. It’s true that, as right-wing think tanks constantly bleat, the top 1 percent pay a much higher rate than everyone else in federal income tax. But most people pay higher rates than the rich do in payroll and state and local taxes. Add everything together, and everyone from the middle class on up is paying about the same percentage in taxes overall.
Then there’s the grim reality that a big chunk of our money goes to buy things like 21,000-pound bombs, which we drop on, say, Afghanistan, a country with an economy one-one thousandth the size of ours.
And then there’s the process of paying taxes itself, which is mind-numbingly baroque — and for absolutely no reason. After all, the government already has copies of all of your tax forms. Countries like Denmark, Sweden and Spain use that information to fill out your return and send it to you. If it looks good, you sign it and you’re done (or if you think you see a mistake, you can change it). The sole reason we don’t have such a system is that the current disaster makes billions of dollars for tax software companies, which then use a slice of that to relentlessly lobby Congress to keep the status quo.
But if those are the only things turning you into a rage monkey this Tax Day, you’re not paying attention. As an extensive new report from Oxfam America explains, the biggest U.S. multinational corporations have positioned themselves for a political victory that will not just slash their taxes and leave regular people to pick up the bill, but also will set the stage for further corporate tax cuts in the future.
Corporate America has three main goals when it comes to taxes:
• Bring their “overseas” profits home. The top statutory tax rate for American corporations is 35 percent, on profits earned anywhere on earth. However, taxes aren’t assessed on profits from outside the U.S. until the money is brought back here.
This creates a huge incentive for companies to engage in complicated financial machinations to make it appear that as much of their profits as possible have been “earned” in other countries. They then leave the cash overseas in hopes of arranging a tax holiday allowing them to bring it back at a much lower rate. This already happened once, in 2004, when companies were assessed taxes at 5 percent on repatriated profits.
Oxfam determined that as of the 2015 tax year, the 50 largest U.S. multinational corporations have a gargantuan $1.6 trillion stashed in other countries. That’s about one-tenth the size of the entire U.S. economy.
Even more remarkably, Oxfam found the tally was up $200 billion from the year before. Tim Cook — CEO of Apple, which has more money overseas than any other company — said before last year’s election that he was “optimistic” there would be a new tax holiday no matter who was president. That jump in overseas profits suggests corporate lawyers and accountants throughout the business world were making a special effort to prepare for such an optimistic future.
Oxfam calculated that the top 50 companies spent $2.5 billion lobbying from 2009 to 2015, or about $46 million per member of Congress. The report also tracked the plethora of front groups set up by corporations to make the case for their kind of tax “reform.” The 50 companies belong to two such organizations on average, while eight of the 50 are members of four or more.
In public, the front groups claim that if big corporations can bring their money home at a special low tax rate, they’ll go on a hiring spree in the U.S. and pour money into investments here. In private, when discussing the subject with Wall Street analysts and investors, they explain that they’ll actually spend it on mergers and stock buybacks. An analysis by Goldman Sachs last November said the same thing, predicting that three-fourths of profits brought back to the U.S. would be used for buybacks.
• Bring down the corporate tax rate as far as possible. Read the Wall Street Journal op-ed page on any day or watch five minutes of CNBC, and you’ll learn that America’s 35 percent statutory corporate tax rate is one of the highest in the world.
Corporate America would dearly love to lower that as far as possible, and if that’s all you hear about the subject it sounds like it makes sense.
However, the effective U.S. corporate tax rate — what companies actually pay after taking advantage of every deduction and loophole — is much lower. A 2014 Congressional Research Service report found the effective U.S. rate was 27.1 percent, slightly lower than the 27.7 percent weighted average of the rest of the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development, made up of most of the world’s richest countries. The 2015 Economic Report of the President, covering a more recent period, calculated that the effective marginal tax rate in the U.S. was 23.9 percent, compared to a weighted average of 20.6 percent for Japan, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and the UK.
Looked at another way, in 2014 OECD members raised an average of 2.8 percent of their GDP in revenue from corporate taxes. That same year the U.S. raised significantly less, at 2.2 percent.
In other words, there’s little sign U.S. companies are overtaxed by world standards.
• Use lowered U.S. tax rates to ratchet down rates everywhere else – and then come back for more here. The most important thing to understand about this issue is that multinational corporations will not be satisfied with a one-time tax cut. Instead, their goal is to use any reduction in U.S. taxes to force taxes down in the rest of the world, and then start complaining again that U.S. rates are too high.
This process is already well underway around the globe. The Oxfam report points out that in 1990 the average corporate tax rate in the world’s 20 major countries was 40 percent; by 2015 it had fallen to 28.7 percent. Moreover, the average 2.8 percent of GDP that OECD companies raised via corporate taxes in 2014 was significantly down from the 3.6 percent they raised just seven years before in 2007.
Politicians acutely feel pressure to bring down rates to make their countries “competitive.” Speaking last September, Bill Clinton explained that he didn’t mind a 35 percent corporate rate when he was president because at that point “it was precisely in the middle of the OECD countries” — but “it isn’t anymore,” so “we should try to get it as close to the international average as we can.”
Likewise, soon after Donald Trump won the election while calling for a top corporate tax rate of 15 percent, British Prime Minister Theresa May declared that her goal was for the UK to reduce its corporate tax from 20 percent to “the lowest corporate tax rate in the G20.”
The logical endpoint of this beggar-thy-neighbor dynamic is that eventually corporations will pay nothing in taxes, at which point everyone will in fact be beggars. “Rather than competing to win a race to the bottom,” says Robert Silverman, the main author of the Oxfam report, “international tax reform needs to be built on a new framework of cross-border cooperation, transparency and accountability.”
At this point, both the good news and the bad news on this subject is that Donald Trump is president. On the one hand, he animatedly vowed during last year’s debates that “I’ll be reducing taxes tremendously” on corporations and that “it’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch.” With a Republican Congress, the years of lobbying and payoffs by big business should be set to bear not just fruit but an entire orchard. But on the other hand, Trump is so lazy and incompetent he probably couldn’t get Congress to pass a resolution endorsing the American Revolution.
So as of now, Trump appears set to enjoy the same rousing success with taxes as he did with healthcare. He’s apparently thrown out the tax plan on which he campaigned and is starting over again from scratch.
Obamacare, however, was a subject of only tangential interest to corporate America. By contrast, a new and improved tax code could be worth trillions of dollars to them. With the stars so seemingly aligned, it’s unlikely that they’ll let their dream be deferred without a significant fight.
So as you sign your tax return, save some screeching and hooting for this infuriating topic. Regular people think about taxes as little as possible because we have no control over them, and the core unfairness of the U.S. system brings us nothing but vexation. But big corporations think about taxes every day — because they know that sooner or later, one way or another, they’ll get what they want.