Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Business Tax Reform is a Social Justice Issue

Since President Obama’s SOTU address, the term “middle class economics” has penetrated mainstream political discourse. These were not all new ideas, but rather a catchy phrase to sum up the priorities of the Obama administration and provide direction for the Democratic party going forward.

Of course, in a functioning democracy, broad based growth is not (or should not be) a partisan position. A recent NYT news analysis article highlighted how the G.O.P. has, in recent years, attempted to re-brand itself to be more appealing to low and middle class Americans (i.e. engage in “middle class economics”).

One potential avenue for such re-branding is compromising on a long overdue overhaul of the American tax system (the last major overhaul was in 1986). According to a recent Al Jazeera America poll, a majority of self-proclaimed Democrats (79%) and Republicans (68%) are “somewhat” or “very” willing to have their congressional leaders compromise on taxes.

Fortunately, bipartisan support for tax reform is not limited to the general public. Both the Democratic party and the G.O.P. have powerful voices in the Federal Executive and Legislative branches (respectively) advocating for compromise on tax reform:

G.O.P Stance:

“Though there are disagreements on the details, there is bipartisan support for tax reform in Congress,” said Orrin Hatch, Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, at a conference for tax lawyers, analysts and economists.

“Members of both parties have expressed their support for a tax overhaul. And, I believe there is real momentum to get something done on tax reform this year, if we remain committed. And, believe me, I’m committed,” he said.

The U.S. tax code has not been overhauled thoroughly in 28 years. In that time it has become riddled with loopholes. As a result, tax avoidance is a growing problem.

At the same time, tax experts also generally agree that the system is so complex and often contradictory that compliance costs are excessive and economic productivity is harmed.

Hatch has laid out basic principles for reform. At the conference, he said he has the impression that Democratic President Barack Obama might be willing to do a deal on business tax reform alone, setting aside individual income tax issues.

“We need to lower corporate tax rates and transition toward a territorial tax system,” Hatch said. A territorial system is one that would exempt all or most of the foreign profits of U.S. corporations from the corporate income tax.

Democratic Party Stance:

Let me (Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew) say at the outset that our entire federal tax code needs to be overhauled.  It has been almost 30 years since we last rewrote it, and since then, the tax system has become heavily burdened by loopholes and inefficiencies

I continue to believe that the best way to achieve reform today is to start with pro-growth business tax reform that protects and strengthens the middle class, lowers rates, simplifies the system, levels the playing field, and eliminates unfair and inefficient loopholes.

The fact is, there is a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington on how to achieve business tax reform, and we have a unique opportunity now to get this done.

On paper, we have one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the world, but in practice, there is a wide disparity in effective corporate tax rates.  Some corporations pay little or no income tax at all, while others pay the highest rate in the developed world.

Moreover, our business tax system is far too complicated — particularly for small businessesOne estimate suggests that a small business, on average, devotes hundreds of hours plus spends thousands of dollars, to comply with the tax code.  We can and must reduce this burden.

Our business tax system actually skews business decisions in ways that make it harder for the economy to grow.  Too many investment decisions are shaped by tax considerations when they should be driven by what will best enhance productivity and growth.  Our tax code should favor the best businesses that create the most economic value — not those that are best at taking advantage of tax deductions.

The international tax system is often looked at in terms of either what is known as a territorial system, in which a company located in a particular country only pays taxes on income earned in that country, or a system like that of the United States, in which that company must pay tax on worldwide income, regardless of the country where it is earned.  The President’s proposal strikes a sensible balance, and would move us towards a more hybrid system.  What that means is we would create a new minimum tax on foreign earnings and make it simpler for a business to bring income back to the United States.  It would also tighten the rules so that companies cannot use accounting techniques to avoid paying taxes, such as shifting profits to low-tax countries (inversions).

Of course, there are tax expenditures that make sense and that need to be protected — like the New Markets Tax Credit, expensing for small businesses, and the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit.  But these tax incentives cost money and need to be paid for to maintain adequate revenue levels.  And we cannot apply a double standard, as some have proposed, where we permanently extend business provisions without paying for them, without permanently extending critical improvements to the EITC, child tax credit, and college credits that help working families at the same time.

Secretary Lew laid out the five pillars of the administration’s proposal for a new business tax system:

1. Lower rates and close wasteful loopholes.
2. Build on the resurgence of manufacturing in the United States.
3. Reform the international tax rules that encourage companies to shift income and investment overseas.
4. Simplify and reduce taxes for small businesses.
5. Fix “our broken tax code and increase investment in a way that maintains current revenues.”

Sounds like both parties want many of the same things.

However, “revenue neutral” business tax reform does not go far enough. Looking at the Federal OMBs Historic Tables (p34-35) tells the story. Since 1934, individual income taxes have consistently made up 40+% of government receipts, while corporate income taxes have varied from as high as 30% to around 10% of receipts in recent years.

True this declining share is partially due to rising Social Security taxes, but since those are split evenly between employers and employees, it is clear that the burden of financing our government has shifted from corporations to people and small businesses. Looking at contributions as a % of GDP (p36-37) further supports this narrative.

These meager contributions by corporations are symptoms of an outdated and unfair tax code, and should not be enshrined in a new one.

Lower tax receipts skew the debate over how to invest in America and her people. Operating from a position of high debt and primary deficit, it is easy to drum up fears that accommodative economic policies will result in rising borrowing costs, ballooning deficits, and [hyper]inflation (despite the fact that America is facing the opposite–historically low borrowing costs, a shrinking deficit, and a very strong dollar).

Implementing business tax reforms would help push America into primary surplus, changing the context of this national debate.

I do not claim to know the exact amount or proper allocation of resources between public goods (education, infrastructure) and welfare programs needed to achieve greater “equality of opportunity” / social mobility. But I can say with confidence that more resources need to go to these causes, as the status-quo has long failed the vast majority of Americans.

The sooner we can have a clear-eyed debate on what policies are needed to promote broad based, sustainable American growth, the better. Holding back this debate, aside from uncompromising politicians, is a failure to overhaul our tax code.

In the interest of balance, work also needs to be done on individual tax reform, to fix high marginal tax rates affecting people who benefit from welfare programs. However, the importance of this issue has been, in my opinion, overblown by those on the political right.

Lastly, the Congressional Budget Office’s use of “dynamic scoring”, as it as been pushed through by the G.O.P. dominated congress (using it for tax proposals but not for spending bills) is another impediment to achieving social justice through tax reform and fiscal policy. 

Van Hollen (D-MD) added that while the bill requires the CBO to run dynamic analyses on major bills, it specifically excludes appropriations bills. He said that exemption shows that Republicans want to downplay how federal spending on education, infrastructure and other areas can also help the economy.

Ryan replied by saying that exemption is there because subjecting all spending bills to dynamic scoring would create significantly more work for the budget office. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) proposed an amendment to include major spending bills, but the House rejected it 182-214.

Ryan’s argument is unfounded and offensive to the talented people employed by the CBO. It is a weak attempt to defend wealthy interests, while downplaying the awesome potential of the American people.

Ideally, this method would be implemented for both tax and spending proposals. If that is not possible, dynamic scoring should not be used at all.

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