OSAKA – Benjamin Franklin famously said that only two things were certain in life — death and taxes. Scientists are still a long way from conquering death or even defeating debilitating disease, but many of the world’s richest companies are doing their best to make sure that taxes do not have the power to reduce their profits.
Some of their supporters, who include powerful Republicans, influential think tanks and even some of the mainstream press, are going further and suggesting that it is high time to abolish all income taxation of companies.
Some do so for ideological reasons — that companies create jobs and economic growth, and should not be penalized or discouraged by taxes from doing so. Other critics assert that there are practical grounds for abolishing corporate tax, either because it is an inefficient way of raising revenue or that international companies using the most liquid resource — money — are cleverer than plodding national tax authorities and will always be able to avoid or evade the short reach and limited imagination of national tax authorities. Any tax will always be passed on anyway.
The highlight of the recent corporate tax debate was the appearance of Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook before the U.S. Congress after a senate inquiry had found that the company used a “complex web” of offshore entities to avoid taxes. Cook did not cower or send minions to answer, as his predecessor Steve Jobs might have done. He came out fighting and boldly told his senator inquisitors, “We pay all the taxes we owe, every single dollar.”
Maverick Sen. Rand Paul leaped to the company’s defense and declared that the senate committee “should apologize to Apple”, which he called, “a Great American company. I’m offended by the spectacle of dragging in executives from a company that is not doing anything wrong.”
Cook was telling the truth, but not the whole truth. Apple pays taxes on its American income in America, and some experts say that it pays more than it strictly has to. But the company has invested huge sums in time, money and tax lawyers to diminish its worldwide tax burden. The problem is that they have done such a good job that Apple now sits with a huge pile of more than $102 billion offshore. Annual reports show that over the past three years, Apple paid just 2 percent in taxes on $74 billion in overseas income. It freely made use of Ireland: Some subsidiaries that are registered there but controlled from the U.S. headquarters have “no declared tax residency anywhere in the world.” One of them, Apple Operations International, has no physical presence and has never had any employees.
When Apple wanted to pay a dividend to shareholders this year, it raised $17 billion through a bond issue, thereby saving $9.2 billion. That was cheaper than repatriating some of the offshore profits, which would have attracted a 35 percent tax. This is the price of success, piles of money that would rapidly lose value if repatriated.
Why single out Apple? It is only one among many companies that have piled up dollars offshore. The offshore profits of 83 U.S.-based companies now total $1.46 trillion. According to Bloomberg, the untaxed offshore sums increased by $183 billion in the past year, a rise of 14.4 percent. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks and a growing list of powerful multinational companies are on the hall of fame or infamy.
Amazon’s tax accounting for its U.K. operations has been called “nothing short of a work of art”. The company had sales of £4.2 billion in the United Kingdom, but paid only £2.4 million in corporation tax in 2012. In the same year, Amazon received government grants amounting to £2.5 million for new industries that create jobs, meaning that the British treasury paid Amazon £100,000 net. But that is only the half of it because Amazon has a reputation as a killer of jobs. How did it work the magic of getting government money to create jobs that would kill existing jobs?
In the United States, Facebook also got a $429 million gift from the taxman last year after write-offs for stock options to founder Mark Zuckerberg and others.
So why not accept that it is too difficult to match or catch the big multinational corporations and not charge them any corporation tax?
The Adam Smith Institute — which has hijacked “the free market” and forgotten the high moral precepts that Smith taught — has long advocated scrapping corporation tax. In a recent article, Tim Worstall wrote, “Why we really do want to abolish corporation tax, reason 672,” and quoted the Congressional Budget Office that “for every dollar raised by corporate taxation, the cost due to distortions was between 24 and 65 cents.”
Edward Alden, writing on the Renewing America blog of the influential Council on Foreign Relations declared: “There are some things that the government should not be trying to do even if the reasons for doing so are obviously good ones. And one of those things is taxing corporations.”
He noted that the government’s tax take has been steadily falling as corporations rake in record profits. Corporate tax payments in the U.S. have slumped from more than 5 percent of GDP in the 1950s to less than 2 percent today.
In 2011, corporate taxes were still the third-largest source of federal revenue but were less than 8 percent, against 47 percent from personal tax and 36 percent from payroll tax.
Alden concludes that “the only sensible solution” is to abolish corporate tax, and make up for it by taxing capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income, meaning a top rate of 39.6 percent instead of 15 percent. Other economists have suggested a nationwide value added tax or a carbon tax to make up the shortfall.
Do Alden or any advocates of abolition believe that the government could make up for corporation taxes with other taxes? A carbon tax? You must be joking. Would Republicans vote for higher taxes on dividends to make up for losses on corporation tax?
The sums don’t add up anyway since higher taxes on dividends would not make up for the losses. If the tax code is broken, fix it, simplify it, but make the big corporations pay and share in the common wealth. It is also a dreadful example from the world’s most powerful economy to other countries where big corporations are the main source of government revenue.
The real argument for corporation tax is both moral and political — that giant companies must be seen to be sharing the common burden.
U.S. Republican President Howard Taft in 1909 supported corporate tax as “a long step toward that supervisory control of corporations which may prevent a further abuse of power.” The Supreme Court in 2010 removed all legal restraints on corporate financial involvement in politics.
What kind of message would it send to unemployed America and the world if the U.S. created a tax-free haven for the already arrogant multinational corporations?
Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University.