Rethinking the corporate income tax

It is hard to find anything positive to say about the corporate income, or profits, tax.

Economists across the ideological spectrum agree that the corporate profits tax is woefully inefficient:
– It warps corporate decision-making, inducing expenditures made only to reduce a company’s tax liability.
– The compliance costs are astronomical, often exceeding 60 cents for every dollar of revenue that the government raises from taxing corporate profits. How would you like to spend $6,000 per year calculating that you owe Uncle Sam $10,000?
– It fosters overreliance on debt. Corporations often need to borrow money to replace funds that government taxed. In fact, the tax code encourages debt, making corporate debt tax deductible.

The corporate profits tax is also ethically problematical. Every year, we read about some corporations that earned profits paying zero taxes, while other firms were ensnared in the tax net. This is patently unfair.
The unfairness is compounded by the periodic tax breaks that Congress writes. The timing of such tax breaks is arbitrary. Why should some firms receive an accelerated depreciation allowance for helpful upgrades paid for this year, when their competitors upgraded last year without receiving a comparable break?
Another thorny ethical problem involves the tax-free status of nonprofit organizations. Some of them engage in political lobbying. They enjoy a cost advantage, compared to for-profit organizations that lobby on the same issue, perhaps on the other side. Other nonprofits compete directly with for-profits for personnel, supplies and so forth. The newest ethical abuse is a loophole by which formerly for-profit companies can convert to nonprofit status, which makes themselves eligible for additional federal earmarks.

Popular support mistaken
Despite the glaring economic and ethical shortcomings of the corporate profits tax, such taxation enjoys widespread popular support. A large percentage of citizens like the idea of taxing rich corporations. However, the economic reality is different from the common perception.
It’s a cliche, but true: Corporations don’t pay taxes, people do. Corporations are simply fictitious legal persons serving as unpaid tax collectors for governments. The actual economic burden of taxation is borne by real people. It is borne by consumers paying higher prices, by workers left with smaller compensation packages and fewer employment opportunities, and by investors. In particular, the burden is borne by the millions of middle-class Americans who own stocks in their retirement and investment accounts, because the corporate income tax makes their investments worth less.

Economy harmed
In addition to being economically irrational, ethically dubious, and a cynical disguise for taxing real people, most of whom are not rich, the corporate profits tax stunts economic growth. In a recent study, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development affirmed, “Corporate taxes are found to be most harmful for growth, followed by personal income taxes and then consumption taxes.”

Scrapping the tax
Currently, the United States has the second-highest corporate income tax rate in the developed world, 35 percent. Should we trim this rate? No. We should scrap the tax entirely.
The biggest problem with eliminating the corporate profits tax, which raised $138.2 billion in fiscal year 2009, is that it would aggravate our budget deficit. To offset this sudden loss of revenue, Congress should terminate all federal subsidies to businesses. Although precise definitions of corporate welfare and exact dollar figures for such government favors are hard to tabulate, they surely exceed $138 billion per year. Let’s do away with the myriad privileges for special business interests. Let’s make them earn their income by serving consumers, instead of milking the taxpayers.
American workers would benefit greatly from ditching the corporate profits tax. Business flooded into Ireland when it undercut the other EU countries by lowering its corporate income tax rate to 12.5 percent. A zero percent rate on corporate income here would be even more enticing, making the United States the favored destination of multinational corporations. Job opportunities would mushroom, and the resulting expansion of the tax base would lower the federal deficit.
The benefits of jettisoning the whole corporate income tax-corporate welfare mess would be many: more jobs, more production, more wealth, more fairness, and lower government deficits. Who could object?
Unfortunately, many people. Start with the strange bedfellows of corporate lobbyists and anti-capitalist ideologues. Then add the politicians who traffic in political favors and moral posturing. Finally, add the millions of American citizens who fail to perceive that, instead of soaking the rich, the corporate profits tax is a scorched-earth policy inflicting widespread economic damage on middle America.
Abolishing the corporate profits tax isn’t politically feasible today, but we can hope for a day when economic reason prevails and we get this albatross off our backs.

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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