Corporate tax: only a piece of tax revenue pie

Business taxes may be high in the US, but overall, Americans are not overtaxed.

Larry Crowe / AP / File
The US has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world, but it is only one piece of the tax revenue system. The US does not have some other taxes that exist in other countries.

In his speech yesterday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, President Obama doubtless pleased many in his audience by repeating the business community’s favorite mantra about U.S. taxes: “Another barrier government can remove,“ he said, “is a burdensome corporate tax code with one of the highest rates in the world.”

Now, what the president said is not wrong—the 35 percent top statutory U.S. corporate income tax rate (39 percent when you include average state rates) is among the highest in the world. And it is far above the 26 percent average among major developed countries. That’s no doubt a bad thing. But real story of business taxation in the U.S. is far more complicated than that one rate.

The average effective U.S. corporate tax rate—the amount of tax corporations actually pay—is far lower than 35 percent, roughly 20 percent to 25 percent by some estimates. Thanks to the diligent and widespread use by many companies of hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks, and because the earnings of many firms are reported on individual, rather than corporate returns, the U.S. raises very little tax revenue from corporations. And the variation of tax liability among corporations is huge. GE pays a 3.6 percent rate. Disney pays 36.5 percent.

The Tax Code is loaded with reasons why. For instance, multinationals shift income to low-tax countries. Firms are allowed to depreciate some investments for tax purposes much faster than the equipment needs to be replaced. Congress went even further in December when it agreed to let businesses immediately write off the entire cost of investments they make in 2011. Firms that finance this equipment with borrowed money may end up paying a negative tax rate on the deal.

But these breaks are only one reason why the statutory rate tells less than the whole corporate tax story. It turns out that more than half of taxable business income in the U.S. is earned by pass-through companies such as partnerships and S corporations. Their owners pay individual taxes on this income, but owe no corporate tax at all.

Because this happens far less frequently elsewhere, it is very difficult to compare U.S. business taxes (either rates or payments) with those in other countries. Peter Merrill, a principal at the accounting firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, argues that the shift to pass-through companies may be the single most important reason why U.S. corporate tax revenues are so low.

Indeed, even though the U.S. corporate rate is the second highest in the world, corporate tax revenues amounted to only about 1.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product last year–less than half the average among major industrialized countries.

Because the corporate tax in only a piece of the U.S. revenue system, it is important to think more broadly about all taxes. And when you do, it is clear that Americans are hardly overtaxed, at least compared to the rest of the developed world. One reason is that the about the only major industrialized nation that does not also have a Value-Added Tax or national sales tax. For instance, advocates for low corporate taxes love to talk about Ireland’s 12.5 percent combined corporate rate. But they usually don’t say much about Ireland’s VAT, which has a top rate of 21 percent. Indeed, those countries with the lowest corporate rates, such as the Slovak Republic and Poland, raise a big chunk of their tax revenue though a VAT, where their rates tend to be among the world’s highest. The money, they have learned, has to come from somewhere.

Add it all up and the U.S. collects far less in taxes than most of our trading partners. In 2008, for instance, Americans paid about 26 percent of GDP in total taxes. The average among developed countries was 35 percent. Ireland collected 29 percent, Canada 32 percent, and Germany 37 percent. Only Turks and Mexicans paid less than Americans.

I don’t mean to suggest that having a high corporate rate is good. It isn’t. But Obama is doing all of us–including the business community–a disservice by talking about that statutory rate alone, as if it had nothing to do with other business taxes, individual income taxes, and even consumption taxes such as a VAT. That corporate rate does not exist in isolation.

At the Chamber, Obama joked that perhaps he would have gotten off to a better start with the business lobby had he brought them a fruitcake when he first moved into the White House. I guess he felt that yesterday’s bit of tax pandering made up for the omission.

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