Tax code needs lower rates, broader base

Washington is again engaged in a tax debate. Each year, lobbyists and political contributors persuade politicians to insert new loopholes. As a result, the four million-word, 74,000-page Internal Revenue tax code is riddled with special interest provisions.

The mind-boggling complexity of the tax code is a money machine for lawyers, accountants, and huge corporations. Americans spend six billion hours and $10 billion annually preparing and filing their income tax returns.

This is the exact opposite of the broad tax base with low rates that would best serve the American people. A broad-based income tax is one in which whatever you earn is taxable. Taxpayers lose their deductions but get a simpler and fairer code, and much lower rates. If the tax rate is low, economic decisions will be based on business and personal considerations, not tax implications.

In April, the Trump administration released a broad outline of proposed tax changes that would reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent and include a one-time tax of 10 percent on overseas profits designed to bring the estimated $2.6 trillion stashed abroad back to be invested in the United States.

The plan cuts individual tax rates and reduces seven brackets to three. The top rate falls to 35 percent from 39.6 percent and the lowest rate starts at 10 percent. The plan also doubles standard deductions. It does not specify to which income levels each bracket would apply. It also eliminates the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes, except for mortgage interest and charitable contributions.

The Trump administration promises that 3 percent annual GDP growth would make up for potential revenue losses. On the other side, Democrats argue that the White House and Republicans would exacerbate income and wealth inequalities by throwing money at the rich at the expense of the middle class.

Republican deficit hawks argue the plan will add trillions to the national debt over the next decade. They argue that deficit-financed tax cuts usually impede growth. For example, increased government borrowing drives up interest rates and reduces the financing available to the private sector. They want revenue neutral reform under which tax cuts are offset by closing loopholes.

Among the risks is that Americans will not spend the money they get from tax breaks, instead saving it or using it to pay down debt. Corporations could also decide to use the money to increase dividends, juice up executive pay and generate a fresh wave of mergers and acquisitions. 

Tax cuts are often confused with tax reform, which restructures the code to make it simpler, fairer, and more efficient. Cuts are easier than reform, which is a tough sell because there are winners and losers.

The United States needs a completely new tax code; one that reduces rates; broadens the tax base; and eliminates back door spending in the form of exemptions, exclusions and tax credits.

This kind of reform was accomplished in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which reduced the top marginal rate for individual taxpayers from 50 percent to 28 percent, eliminated about $100 billion in loopholes, and taxed labor and capital at the same rate. It also cut the basic corporate tax rate from 48 percent to 34 percent and eliminated many corporate deductions.

But since then lobbyists and political contributors have succeeded at restoring tax breaks, which narrowed the base. As a result, rates had to increase to generate the same amount of revenue.

What needs to happen is clear, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to pass. Congress and the White House are distracted by the investigation into possible ties between former Trump aides and Russia, and the Senate healthcare debate could drag on through the summer.

Meanwhile, momentum for major tax cuts or major infrastructure investments has stalled. This time next year, leaders in Washington will likely still be arguing about tax reform.

Originally published: June 10, 2017

Why not just scrap all corporate taxes?

Both major-party presidential candidates claim to have tax plans that will help make the economy work for everyone. They will assist the anxious middle class, the downsized and the dispossessed while growing the economy and jobs. An important component of each is the treatment of corporate profits.

The candidates differ on how to reform the corporate tax code. Front-runner Hillary Clinton has not embraced President Barrack Obama’s proposal to reduce the federal corporate marginal tax rate to 28 percent from 35 percent, the highest in the developed world, and pair the reduction with a broader tax base (fewer exemptions) to generate savings to finance the proposed cut. Instead, Clinton has proposed tighter rules to deter corporations from moving abroad and measures to prevent corporate tax avoidance.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, favors a 15 percent corporate income tax rate and would offer corporations a reduced 10 percent rate if they bring home some of the $2 trillion American corporations have stashed overseas.

But the best path might just be to scrap the corporate tax altogether.

Neither candidate has addressed the issue of most high-income countries having adopted a territorial tax system, in which income earned abroad is not taxed by the home country. Yet the U.S. continues to use a version of a global tax system that taxes domestic companies’  income regardless of where it was earned.

The case for lowering the tax rate is that the gap between the U.S. rate and that of other countries encourages companies to shift investment and profits overseas. Corporations complain that high corporate taxes and a global tax system make it more difficult for them to compete in the world economy, attract foreign investment to the U.S. and create American jobs.

The American public is greatly unimpressed by these arguments. Polls show that the majority of Americans believe corporations pay less than their fair share in taxes. According to a survey by Citizens for Tax Justice, many Fortune 500 companies paid an average effective federal tax rate of just  19.4 percent, much less than the 35 percent marginal rate, the additional tax paid on an extra dollar of income.

A key target of public criticism is the expansion of deductions and exemptions to corporate income that have contributed to its decline as a share of total tax revenue over the last several decades. Corporate income taxes accounted for 32 percent of federal tax income in 1951; by 2015 it was 11 percent.

The U.S. has a dysfunctional and confusing tax code. Lost between fact and fiction is the question who bears the economic burden of taxing  corporate profits. You don’t have to be drunk, crazy or both to understand that this is a nontrivial question.

Are corporate taxes simply another way to tax firms’ shareholders, employees, and customers? When corporate income is paid out as dividends or realized as capital gains, corporations and shareholders pay tax twice on the same income. Are these the only people who actually end up paying the corporate income tax, or do employees also pay in the form of lower wages and fewer benefits?

If that is indeed the case, then perhaps it is time to scrap the corporate income tax altogether and instead tax individuals on their dividends and capital gains at ordinary income tax rates. The corporate income tax would go the way of Prohibition, and in the process make the U.S. a desirable place to locate and build businesses.

This certainly isn’t the last word on the subject, but it isn’t a bad approach to reforming the corporate tax code, which will likely be addressed after the 2016 elections if one party controls the White House and Congress . If not, we’ll just continue to improvise- and likely produce the same dysfunctional results.

Originally Published: Aug 23, 2016

Congress must open its eyes to carried interest

When the 114th Congress convenes on Jan. 15 with a Republican majority in both houses,
comprehensive tax reform will be high on their to-do list. Among the first things they should address is ending the practice of treating so-called carried interest as ordinary income.

For those of you who did not grow up passing around copies of the tax code, there are few subjects more esoteric than America’s byzantine tax code. The federal tax code consists of nearly 74,000 pages and about four million words, twice the length of the King James Bible and the entire works of Shakespeare combined.

This voluminous magnum opus validates the average American’s suspicions that Washington is a stage of prancing marionettes tweaked by Wall Street (aka Crime Central) and other moneyed interests.

Rewriting the tax code is a difficult undertaking given the multitude of well-capitalized special interest groups from every comer of American business and society that have skin in the game when it comes to tax policy. Closing tax loopholes that favor particular groups instigates knock-down drag-out political fights. This is why the last serious tax reform came in 1986, also known as light years ago, under President Reagan.

One place to start comprehensive tax reform is to bring an end to the carried interest loophole, which allows super wealthy investment managers, including those in the private equity, hedge fund and venture capital business, to define their compensation as capital gains and pay income tax at a far lower rate. This forces ordinary people to pay more by transferring the burden to those who cannot afford tax attorneys.

Investment managers take a considerable portion of their pay as carried interest, which means being compensated for managing funds’ investments as a share of fund profits, without putting their own capital at risk. Under current tax law, carried interest is treated as a capital gain, subject to the top 20 percent capital gain rate plus a 3.8 percent surcharge on unearned income to help pay for the Affordable Care Act, rather than as ordinary income subject to the top marginal tax rate of 39.6 percent.

As former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin noted several years ago, “I think what they’re doing is getting paid a fee for running other people’s money.” Put differently, carried interest is performance­ based compensation for investment management services rather than a return on financial capital invested by managers.

The one-percenters, who tend to be big political donors, are the principal beneficiaries of carried interest. Quite apart from basic fairness, treating all taxpayers who provide a service the same, the Obama administration has estimated that ending this tax loophole would generate an additional $15 billion in revenue over 10 years.

For a long time, this loophole has unfairly enabled some of the highest paid individuals in the country to sharply reduce their tax bills and it is time to close it once and for all. Legislation is needed to fix the carried interest dodge and ensure that income earned managing other people’s money is taxed at the same rates as that earned by teachers, factory workers, attorneys and millions of other Americans for the services they provide.

Because of the financial sector’s outsized influence, you can expect to hear how closing the carried interest loophole will destroy capitalism as we know it and undermine the economy. Experience teaches us that the financial sector’s lobbying clout, combined with the fact that doing the right thing is a dangerous luxury for politicians, Main Street standing on the sidelines is not a recipe for success on this issue.

The American public has to actively engage and abandon the assumption that so many things are now taken for granted that it’s as if the public literally no longer sees them.

originally published: December 27, 2014

Corporate America must pay fair tax rate

Both President Obama and Republicans have called for lowering the corporate tax rate, citing America’s global competitiveness. But cuts should be reserved for companies that invest in the U.S. and its workers. Other corporations should pay more, and all should pay their fair share.

The federal government first taxed corporate income in 1909. Corporate rates were initially below 10 percent, but following World War II they increased dramatically, to over 50 percent in I951. Between 1951 and 1986, the top corporate tax rate ranged from 46 to 52.8 percent.

Large corporations were also complaining about the tax rate in 1986, the year of the last significant federal tax reform. The rate was reduced to 35 percent, loopholes were closed and the tax code simplified. At the time, the rate was lower than that of most developed countries. But today the 35 percent rate is one of the world’s highest, and it jumps to 39.2 percent when state and local taxes are included.

This rate is double the European average and more than triple Ireland’s 12.5 percent rate. Over the past 25 years, almost every country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has cut its top corporate tax rate. Corporate America is again arguing that the U.S. rate is a disadvantage for domestic  corporations.

But while U.S. companies often complain about the 35 percent top rate, they don’t like to admit that hardly any of them pay anything close to it. While the United States’ corporate tax rate is relatively high, it’s not a meaningful measure of the actual corporate tax burden.

A 2013 Government Accountability  Office report showed that large, profitable U.S. corporations paid an effective federal tax rate of 12.6 percent of their worldwide income in 2010, about one-third the statutory rate. Adding in foreign, state, and local taxes increased the average effective tax rate to 16.9 percent, which is certainly competitive with other developed countries and is a lower rate than the average teacher or police officer pays. A 2012 study by Citizens for Tax Justice found that over a recent period, 30 of the largest U.S. multinationals with more than $160 billion in profits paid no federal income tax at all.

According to the Congressional Research Service, corporate income taxes have diminished as a source of federal revenue, from 39.8 percent in 1943 to 9.9 percent in 2012, as corporate profits reached record highs. The GAO reported that in 20I2, corporate income taxes generated about $242 billion in federal revenue, while individual income taxes accounted for $1.I trillion.

U.S. corporate tax collection equaled just 2 percent of gross national product in 2011, according to the OECD. That was the lowest in a ranking of 27 wealthy countries.

The reason they pay less in taxes is not because corporations play a less important role in our economy or that corporate profitability has diminished. Rather, it is that corporations have learned how to exploit loopholes in the tax code and retain lobbyists who move well in Washington. And let’s not forget the $2 trillion in profits stashed abroad.

Much of the simplification from the comprehensive 1986 tax overhaul has been lost. Between 2001 and 2010 there were over 4,000 changes festooned to the tax code, resulting in a code of nearly four million words with a sky-high impenetrability quotient.

Nearly six years after the financial meltdown, the economy is still far from recovery. Over 20 million Americans who want a full-time job can’t get one and labor force participation is at its lowest level since 1978. Low wages and stagnant incomes prevail.

Congress should create incentives for companies that invest and create jobs in the U.S. and impose higher taxes on firms that do not. But any tax reform should start from the premise that corporate America has to pay its fair share, and that means no profitable corporation having a lower tax rate than your child’s teacher.

originally published: August 30, 2014