Tax Reform: End the Corporate Income Tax to Grow Economy & Wages

The Corporate Income Tax, today, collects just 1.8% of GDP, and accounts for only 8% of total federal revenues.  By comparison, at its peak in 1952 the CIT amounted to one-third of federal revenues.  Corporations have employed every legal resource to reduce their tax liability, and while some multi-national corporations park profits in lower-taxed countries, others with less ethical boundaries claim overseas subsidiaries in tax havens and transfer their profits to a mailbox.

With the CIT having been perversely minimized, the VATinfo website has endorsed the concept of sweeping tax reform, at once eliminating the Corporate Income Tax and replacing it with a Value Added Tax, and combining it with a progressive Personal Income Tax employing a large standard deduction and no other deductions.  VATinfo’s rough “Smart Tax” calculation…based upon IRS tables with insight provided by IRS and the Tax Policy Center at Brookings Institute…projected that a VAT tax rate of 9% would be required to replace the CIT and offset a Personal Income Taxes cut for incomes under $100,000.  (The plan envisioned eliminating the PIT for filers with Adjusted Gross Income under $50,000…two-thirds of all filers; reducing the PIT by 56% for those with AGI between $50,000 and $75,000; reducing the PIT by 17% for those with AGI between $75,000 and $100,000.)

In December 2013, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a working paper, “Simulating the Elimination of the U.S. Corporate Income Tax,” with very reinforcing conclusions.  Foremost is the understanding that when U.S. capital moves to a lower-taxed country, U.S. workers suffer a loss in labor demand and real wages.  And, the reverse would be true were the U.S. to end the CIT.  The study projects that capital would flow to the U.S. resulting in “a rapid and sustained 23 to 37 percent higher capital stock.”  “Higher capital per worker means higher labor productivity and, thus, higher real wages.  Indeed, in the wage-tax simulation, real wages of unskilled workers end up 12 percent higher and those of skilled workers end up 13 percent higher.”

The NBER study concludes that while the economic gains from eliminating the CIT would fall short of replacing the revenue loss entirely (requiring an increase in taxes on wages, or a consumption tax), there would be relative distributional gains accruing to both skilled and unskilled workers, i.e., addressing income inequality.

Simpson-Bowles and a Smarter Tax System to Spur Growth

Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles have released their newly revised plan for curbing the deficit and reducing the debt.  Included in the plan is a call for $600 billion in increased tax revenues to be accomplished by reducing deductions for corporate and individuals while reducing tax rates.

In calling for this approach to tax reform, Simpson-Bowles takes aim at our bloated, inefficient tax system:

Reform the Tax Code in a Progressive and Pro-Growth Manner. The current tax code is complicated, confusing, costly, anti-growth, anti-competitive, unfair, and riddled with well over $1 trillion of tax expenditures – which really are just spending by another name. Tax reform must reduce the size and number of tax expenditures to reduce the budget deficit and lower marginal tax rates for individuals and corporations. At the same time, tax reforms must maintain or improve the progressivity in the tax code and promote economic growth. Tax reform will make the tax code more efficient, effective, and globally competitive.”

The last goal, to create a “globally competitive” tax system cannot be overemphasized.  In this era of globalization, the U.S. remains at a major competitive trade disadvantage by virtue of its tax system.  Eliminating this disadvantage is the prime key to growth that government policy could provide.

According to the new Census Bureau report, the 2012 U.S. trade deficit dropped nearly $20 billion to $540 billion, mostly due to a decrease in expenditures for foreign oil.  But, our manufacturing trade deficit reached a record deficit of $684.5 billion, an increase of 7%.

The goods deficit with China increased $20 billion, to $315 billion from $295 billion, accounting for 58% of the imbalance. U.S. exports to China increased $6.7 billion (primarily soybeans and civilian aircraft, engines, equipment, and parts) to $110.6 billion, but imports increased $26.3 billion (primarily cell phones and other household goods) to $425.6 billion.

The goods deficit with European Union increased from $99.9 billion in 2011 to $115.7 billion in 2012.  Exports decreased $3.3 billion (primarily non-monetary gold and petroleum products) to $265.1 billion, while imports increased $12.5 billion (primarily passenger cars, civilian aircraft engines, and petroleum products) to $380.8 billion.

Achieving Growth through Tax Policy.  The most positive reform to stimulate growth in exports, domestic production and jobs would be to replace the Corporate Income Tax with a Value Added Tax.  VAT is now utilized by all our trading partners and over 150 countries to exclude the cost of government from the price/value relationship of goods and services in international trade.  By definition under GATT rules, unlike corporate income taxes, the VAT is border-adjusted, i.e., subtracted from exports and added to imports. Without a VAT of our own, imports have a decided price advantage, and our exports carry a price disadvantage.

Replacing the CIT by a VAT would eliminate the double-taxation of dividends, encourage the return of multi-national profits now parked in countries with lower corporate tax rates, and stimulate foreign investment here.  Imports would carry an equal burden, so American goods would become more competitive at home and abroad.  An additional consideration to stimulate jobs would be to replace the corporate contribution to FICA by the VAT to reduce a direct disincentive cost to employment.

Governor Mitch Daniels, echoing Herman Kahn of Hudson Institute, once suggested that replacing our current tax system by a VAT coupled with an individual income tax with a high threshold would produce a tax system that is fair, competitive, and stimulative for growth.  And, with zero tax preferences (no exclusions and deductions), gone would be the corrupting lobbying for loopholes, once and for all.

VAT to Replace CorpIncTax =
Fair Trade, Jobs & Growth

VAT to Replace CorpIncTax = Fair Trade, Jobs, Growth (Bill Clinton explains)

Alm, James and Asmaa El-Ganainy, “Value-added Taxation and Consumption,” Tulane University Economics Working Paper 1203, July 2012

Does the value-added tax affect consumption?  Using a sample of fifteen EU countries over the period 1961-2005…we find that the effective VAT tax rate is negatively correlated with the level of aggregate consumption.  More precisely, a one percentage point increase in the VAT rate leads to about a one percent reduction in the level of per capita aggregate consumption.  This result is consistent across various estimators, alternative time periods, and additional explanatory variables.  To our knowledge, these estimation results are the first attempt to include explicitly and to estimate directly the effects of the VAT on consumption behavior.

Our results have the clear implication that policymakers should consider the potential impact of the VAT on households’ consumption decision when designing a VAT.  Our results are also consistent with the often-stated view of proponents of consumption taxes that taxing consumption rather than income generates more savings, and so leads to higher growth.

Of course, there are many considerations that influence any decision to tax consumption versus income.  The effects on consumption choices are clearly important, but other dimensions also matter: how are other aspects of behavior (e.g., labor supply, portfolio choice, tax evasion)affected, what are the distributional effects of different forms of taxation, how does a country make the transition from one major tax base to another, what are the administrative dimensions of taxing different tax bases, how are different levels of government affected by income versus consumption taxes, how does consumption versus income taxation affect the international decisions of firms and individuals, to name just a few.  Even so, our results demonstrate that greater use of the VAT has led, at least in EU countries to less consumption and more savings, a finding that has broader implications for the choice of a consumption tax versus an income tax.

Domenici-Rivlin Ditch DRST (VAT), testimony before Senate Finance Committee, 06/19/12

Sen. Pete Domenici and Dr. Alice Rivlin appeared before the Senate Finance Committee in open session to discuss their plan for sweeping tax reform.  They emphasized the overarching point that additional revenue is needed to reduce the deficit.  After all prudent cuts are made to Medicare, and after means-testing Social Security, there will still be a need for additional revenue to meet the obligations of a growing retired population.

Senator Hatch asked for confirmation that the revised D-R plan as now presented would replace their original element of a Deficit Reduction Sales Tax, a VAT, with an increased Corporate Income Tax (CIT).  Dr. Rivlin confirmed in response, but added that they “both still like” the idea of the DRST, however there was “no appetite” in Congress for a VAT.

The fact that no one in the Senate has the courage to back a Value Added Tax is at once understandable and regrettable.  Introducing a VAT…even dedicated to deficit reduction…would create yet another new tax in addition to the CIT.  Senators would have a hard time convincing their constituents that this medicine would be in their best interest.  It just would not be politically viable.

The way to sell a VAT rests with outright replacement of the CIT, which is a broken cog in our tax system.

In the process of avoiding taxation, corporations employ accountants, tax attorneys, and lobbyists to find and create loopholes that will minimize their costs.  These specialists are hugely successful, particularly for the large multi-national corporations.  As a result, the CIT is riddled with many exceptions —for agricultural subsidies, off-shore profits, American cruise lines, literally hundreds upon hundreds.

The result is a complicated maze that only a team of specialists can navigate. And, who knows what’s right? Neither individuals nor corporations know for sure whether their taxes paid are more or less than they could or should be.  As Will Rogers said, “The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has.” Ultimately, this crazy quilt of code has undermined trust in government.

The CIT has long been criticized for being too high and uncompetitive.  This is why our multi-nationals tend to park profits in countries with lower tax rates. Some multi-national corporations push the limits by incorporating overseas profit centers that are no more than a mailbox in a foreign land. Such legal non-compliance may be an ethical and moral question, but it makes for good after-tax profits.

The fundamental purpose of our tax system should be to efficiently collect revenue in a way that is equitable and minimally inhibits economic growth and domestic employment.  William Simon, who served as Secretary of the Treasury in the Nixon and Ford administrations, said disparaging of our tax code: “The nation should have a tax system that looks like someone designed it on purpose.”

Look at how unsuccessful the CIT really is.  Collections peaked as a percentage of federal tax receipts in 1952 at 32.1%.  Receipts averaged 21.3% of total revenues in the 1960’s, 16.1% in the 1970’s, 9.6% in the 1980’s, 10.5% in the 1990’s, 10.4% in the 2000’s.  In 2010, the CIT contributed 8.9% and in 2011 only 7.9%.

A 2011 study by Citizens for Tax Justice revealed that the 280 most profitable corporations sheltered nearly half their profits from federal income taxes in the prior three years; their average effective tax rate was 18.5% over the three years, about half the statutory 35% rate; 78 of these companies paid zero federal income tax in one or more of those years.

Corporations are so successful at gaming the CIT, that taxes paid have fallen to the point where their compliance expenses including accountants, lawyers and lobbyists cost these corporations $740 for every $1000 the government collects.

If federal receipts from corporations have declined from one-third of federal revenues and now amount to less than 10%, why continue a tax system that is so easily thwarted and inefficient?

Why not replace the CIT with a smarter tax, a VAT to better compete in world trade and to assure compliance?

VAT is already accepted and proven.  This tax system was specifically created for world trade and is employed by all our trading partners and over 150 countries.  It is a consumption tax levied at each stage of production and in total is equivalent to a retail sales tax.

What makes the VAT important for trade is its border adjustability, meaning it is subtracted from exports and added to imports.  This feature removes the variable of the burden of government from the cost comparison of goods in international trade.

For example, when a car is shipped from Germany to China, the 19% German VAT is deducted from the price of the vehicle, and the 17% VAT in China is added to the price of the car when it is imported there. But, when a U.S. car ships overseas, there is no such deduction for the cost government (the CIT), and a VAT tax is added to the price by the importing country.  Here in the U.S., there is no VAT added to imports.  Without our own VAT, there is a large price wedge against U.S. products at home and abroad.

Our largest trading partners add the following VAT cost to goods they import from us.  The range is from 5% VAT in Canada and Japan to over 17% on average from the others: Canada 5%, China 17%, France 19.6%, Germany 19%, Italy 20%, Japan 5%, Korea 10%, Mexico 16%, Spain 16%, United Kingdom 17.5%.

These countries have a CIT in addition to a VAT.  But, that does not make sense for the U.S.  Why just add another tax onto the CIT, which we already know is a broken system?  How would replacing the CIT by a VAT affect us?

  • We would very likely see a strong economic growth spurt and more jobs.
  • U.S. goods would be more competitive with imports here, since imports would be equally taxed by the VAT.
  • U.S. exports would be more competitive, as the VAT, unlike the CIT, would be subtracted from exports.
  • There would be no double-taxation of dividends.  Because corporate profits would not be taxed, only dividends would be taxed to individuals when they receive them.
  • U.S. multi-nationals…which now park profits in lower-taxed countries…would bring their capital back to the U.S. for investment. The U.S. with NO corporate income tax would be the best country for recognizing your profits.  Foreign corporations would likewise shift profits to the U.S. for investment.

 If VAT is so good, why don’t we have it?  Again, VAT would be a new tax, and politicians fear proposing taxes, even if it is good medicine.  Tax is a four-letter word to politicians.  But, we don’t have to follow other countries and make our VAT an “add-on” tax.  Our VAT can be a dollar-for-dollar replacement for other taxes.  We can replace all corporate tax revenues by an 8% VAT, including rebates to protect individual tax filers with low income.  Companies would save substantially on their compliance expenses, and that savings could go to stockholders or consumers in the form of lower prices. Companies would no longer have the CIT to dodge, so they would no longer need a bevy of expensive lobbyists to push for loopholes (unless we made the mistake of permitting exceptions to the VAT, which would be like letting the camel’s nose under the tent).

Want to see the idea considered of replacing the CIT by a VAT?  Contact your representatives in the House and Senate. Tell them you would like the U.S. to get a fair shake in international trade.  Tell them replacing the Corporate Income Tax by a Value Added Tax will make the U.S. more competitive and create jobs.  Tell them you will not vote against them for proposing a revenue-neutral VAT to replace the Corporate Income Tax.

Chances are, some of our representatives really get the concept and would support a VAT, but they need to know you will support them.

Mitchell, Daniel J., “Tax Reform to Encourage Growth, Reduce the Deficit, Promote Fairness,” Senate Budget Committee Hearing, 03/01/12

Dr. Daniel J. Mitchell, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute

“The internal revenue code is needlessly punitive and complex. Some of its major flaws are:

1. High tax rates – Marginal tax rates on additional increments of productive activity are too high, discouraging people from productive behavior.

2. Biased treatment of income that is saved and invested – Because of the capital gains tax, the corporate income tax, the double tax on dividends, and the death tax, there is pervasive double taxation on capital, causing very high effective marginal tax rates.

3. Distorting loopholes – Many provisions of the internal revenue code are explicitly designed to encourage economically irrational choices.

4. Worldwide application – The United States have the world’s most onerous tax system for international activity.

5. Corruption – While in most cases technically legal, the common practice of swapping favorable tax policies for political support is corrosive.

6. Complexity – Nearly 100 years of tax changes have produced 72,000 pages of law and accompanying regulation.

Tax reform has the potential to reduce, or perhaps even eliminate, these problems. But it also could make them worse. To ensure the best possible outcome, lawmakers should be guided by these principles.

A. Tax rates should be as low as possible – Taxes are a price, and it doesn’t make sense to impose a high price of work and entrepreneurship. . The tax system should not discriminate against capital formation – Since every economic theory, even Marxism and socialism, holds that saving and investment is a key to long-run growth and higher living standards, it doesn’t make sense to impose extra-high tax rates on capital.

C. Government should not tilt the playing field with preferences or penalties – Luring people into making economically inefficient choices makes the economy less productive.

D. Territorial taxation – This is the good-fences-makes-good-neighbors approach to tax policy. Disputes with other nations become trivial if each nation is in charge of taxing economic activity inside its borders.

The ideal system, based on the above principles, is a low-rate, consumption-base, loophole-free tax.

The best-known tax meeting these criteria is the flat tax, as developed by Professors Hall and Rabushka at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

But the value-added tax is also satisfies these principles – assuming it is replacement rather than add-on tax. And a national sales tax also shares these theoretical qualities.

All of these tax regimes have different collection points, but the tax base is identical. All economic activity is taxed, but only one time and at a low rate.

If lawmakers want to improve growth, particularly in a competitive global economy, where labor and capital can cross borders in search of pro-growth fiscal policy, they should seek to reform the tax system so it fulfills these principles. Economists will not agree on how much additional growth such a system will generate, but they generally will agree that a low-rate, consumption-base, loophole-free tax is the way to minimize the damage caused by taxation.”