While big business whimpers about high statutory tax rates, the effective tax rate paid by most corporations in America is often far lower than most other developed nations (thanks to loopholes and accounting tricks). Meanwhile, corporate tax receipts accounted for 30 percent of US federal revenues in the mid-1950s. In 2009, they made up just 6.6 percent of federal revenue streams.
In other words, not only are big corporations funding a smaller percentage of our shared social safety net, they’re paying a smaller percentage into funding the future infrastructure that they desperately need.
Imagine if big business got its way and corporate taxes were slashed even further. How would businesses suffer?
What would Oprah and Henry Ford have done?
Imagine if, when Henry Ford wanted to start the Ford Motor Company, he had to not only drill for oil himself but also oversee the laying of pipelines and production infrastructure across government-owned land so his cars could have gas to make them go. And when the American auto industry was expanding in the 1940s and 50s creating jobs throughout the nation, imagine if Chrysler and General Motors had to not only build their own factories and assembly lines but actually plan and construct the roads and interstate highways for cars to drive on.
Imagine if Oprah had to regulate the television spectrum for herself and that at random, bandwidth pirates could intrude on broadcasts of the Oprah Winfrey Show because there was no Federal Communications Commission monitoring ownership of and access to the public airwaves.
Imagine if every restaurateur today had to invest in his or her own food safety teams to make sure the meat served isn’t toxic. Imagine if every small business in remote rural communities had to generate its own electricity on site because the government wouldn’t have helped fund the expansion of power lines to those distant places. Imagine if every corporation had to educate its entire workforce from childhood to adulthood because there were no public schools.
Bill Gates would have had to run phone lines
What if, when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he couldn’t get a patent from the United States government to protect his idea? Or for that matter, if there had been no laws to protect private property and no law enforcement, Bell might have had to sit up all night with a gun guarding his invention – instead of going out in the world and figuring out how to use it.
When Bill Gates wanted to start Microsoft, consider if instead of drawing on the government-created infrastructure of the original Internet (which he accessed early on in high school through the publicly funded University of Washington), Mr. Gates not only had to invent Windows, but also invent the entire World Wide Web and run the wiring for the phone lines that originally connected all his potential consumers.
When Warren Buffet launched his investing career that ultimately earned him billions, imagine if in addition to hiring lawyers to run his business, Mr. Buffett had to hire judges, too, and create entire court systems to oversee and enforce the types of binding contracts on which the stock market relies. For that matter, imagine if Buffet had to print his own currency and negotiate its value against the currencies of all other individual investors.
Taxes fund the infrastructure of private sector success
Businesses in the United States don’t succeed in spite of our government, in many ways, they succeed because of our government. Through our taxes, we fund the legal and economic infrastructure of private sector success. By definition, those businesses that get the most out of that infrastructure are those that should give the most back.
At a time when economic conservatives want to slash spending that helps the poor and middle class rather than raise the already-low effective taxes of big business, it’s shameful that corporations like General Electric and Bank of America effectively pay no taxes. In the context of the larger American story, where successful businesses of today support the public infrastructure for the businesses of tomorrow, saying that corporations should pay even less is downright un-American.
Sally Kohn is a community organizer and political commentator. She is the founder and Chief Education Officer of the Movement Vision Lab, a grassroots think tank.