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Reimagining international tax in a globalized world

Though the world economy has changed drastically in the past hundred years, the basic international tax framework has not. Michael Graetz addresses how to handle issues of international tax in a recent talk at Tax Policy Center.

Koji Sasahara/AP/File
A woman looks at an electronic stock board in front of a securities firm in Tokyo, Japan.

It is so easy to get lost in the weeds of tax policy. Nowhere is that more true than in the hyper-technical world of international tax that only a handful of economists and lawyers really understand. That’s why a recent short talk by Columbia University law professor Michael Graetz was so useful.

Mike spoke last Friday at a Tax Policy Center conference  that examined two interesting corporate tax reforms designed by Alan Auerbach of the University of California Berkeley and Michael Devereux of Oxford University and colleagues. One was a destination-based corporate income tax and the other was a destination-based cash flow tax that would function much like a Value-Added Tax. Versions of that cash-flow tax have attracted the attention of several key political figures  in recent months (though not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton).

As you might expect, it didn’t take long for Friday’s discussion to dive deeply into the weeds. And that was ideal for an audience that loves the arcane details of tax policy. But Graetz did the rest of us a great service by providing an easily understandable 30,000-foot overview of the challenges of international tax.

Here are just four of Mike’s key points:

  • The basic international tax framework has not changed since it was developed nearly a century ago, though the world economy and financial technology have changed radically.
  • Tax policy in the future will reflect the tension between nations seeking new sources of revenue, often from non-resident corporations, and those they are trying to tax.  Multinationals “will engage in ongoing, complex tax planning and will tend to stay at least a step ahead of governments.”
  • Public reaction to this tax avoidance will continue to drive economic populism in western industrialized nations.
  • Finally, Mike quoted the economist Thomas Sewell Adams, who played a key role in developing the framework for international tax law a century ago. “Anyone,” he said, “who trusts wholly to economics, reason, and justice will in the end retire beaten and disillusioned.”

Notwithstanding that discouraging note, give Mike’s remarks a read. They’ll help keep you from getting lost in those nasty weeds the next time the experts start debating corporate tax reform.

This article first appeared at TaxVox.

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