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10 reasons to defend the Corporation Tax

Finance
Economics
Corporations
money man

Thomas Galvez under a Creative Commons Licence

The Tax Justice Network has, as ever, done us all a great service by setting out the simple facts of the matter in their latest exemplary report, Ten Reasons to Defend the Corporation Tax.

An under-reported feature of the Great Recession has been the accumulation by transnational corporations (TNCs) of huge cash hoards, variously estimated at $3 trillion or more worldwide.

So there’s no shortage of cash to go round. As with things like food, it’s just a matter of who’s got their hands on it.

In large part, corporate cash has been hoarded because most people haven’t got enough cash to buy all the stuff TNCs need to sell, so there’s no point in investing productively.

In much smaller part, it is also because very profitable corporations, like Apple, prefer not to pay tax on profits ‘repatriated’ from tax havens and the like, and choose instead to borrow very cheaply – and tax-deductably – to fund the dividends their shareholders expect.

From this, TNCs and their entourage of ‘advisers’ go on to argue that corporate income tax is the biggest ‘barrier to growth’. Their allies in national governments dutifully join a ‘race to the bottom’ to cut corporate tax and encourage TNCs to invest in their countries, rather than anywhere else.

This does little to resolve the problems of the global economy, but it does allow the more disreputable among national governments to claim they’re attracting beloved TNCs to their shores.

Around the world, while unjust or ‘regressive’ taxes on the general population, like consumption or ‘value added’ taxes, have been rising, more equitable ‘progressive’ taxes on the wealth of the rich, like TNCs, have been falling, as services relied on by the public at large are slashed by their supposedly ‘bankrupt’ governments.

If the trend continues, and corporate taxes eventually fall to zero, then the logical conclusion will be for people to become corporations, rather than corporations to become people (as, in terms of legal status, they already are), and pay no income tax at all.

The Tax Justice Network summarizes its findings like this:

The corporate income tax is under attack. Nation states are scrambling to offer multinational corporations an ever growing feast of lower taxes, loopholes and incentives. Lobbyists and politicians constantly try to persuade us that the corporate tax is a bad, inefficient, unreasonable tax. Yet it is one of the most precious of all taxes.

One of our 10 points concerns revenue. Corporate income taxes have added up to almost $7.5 trillion since the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, in OECD (rich) countries alone. This is nearly half of all OECD public health spending and around double the amount spent on public tertiary education, one of the fundamental underpinnings of corporate profits. It is even more important for developing countries.

And yet the corporate tax is disappearing fast. Average headline tax rates are around half what they were in 1980, and on current trends will reach zero in the next two or three decades. We may not even have this much time, given the influence of the large accountancy firms and corporate lobbyists actively working to hasten its demise.

Since the 1970s multinational corporate profits have soared but the constant attacks on the corporate tax mean nation states are capturing a dwindling share of this bonanza. The result is greater inequality, higher taxes for poorer sections of society, distorted markets, and rising fears of plutocracy.

Our report outlines 10 reasons why it is essential to defend the corporate income tax. In summary, these are:

1. Corporate income taxes raise essential revenue for schools, hospitals and the rule of law.

2. Less well understood is the fact that the corporate tax helps hold the whole tax system together: without it, people will stash their money in zero-tax corporate structures and defer or even escape tax entirely.

3. The corporate income tax curbs inequality and protects democracy. The tax charge falls largely on the wealthy owners of capital: without it, corporations and their wealthy owners free-ride off the public services paid for by others.

4. Corporate taxes enhance national welfare. So-called ‘competitive’ tax-cutting is fool’s gold, particularly for the larger economies.

5. Corporate tax cuts, incentives and loopholes ricochet around the world. A tax cut in one place may suck capital out of others and prompt other jurisdictions to follow suit, in a race to the bottom where the only winners are the very wealthiest sections of society.

6. The corporate income tax is particularly important for developing countries, which rely more heavily on it than rich countries do.

7. Corporate taxes can rebalance economies. Corporations around the world are hoarding cash, not investing it. Corporate taxes harness this idle cash and put it to productive uses, via government spending on education, roads and other public services.

8. The corporate tax curbs rent-seeking [profiting from profits]. Because rent-seeking tends to be more profitable than genuine productive activity, the corporate tax falls more heavily on it.

9. Tax cuts and special incentives don’t stop at zero: they turn negative. In this race to below the bottom there is no limit on corporations’ zeal for free-riding off public goods and subsidies paid for by others.

10. Corporate taxes spur transparency and more accountable government. To collect the tax, states must put in place good tracking measures.

Our document also addresses seven common myths about the tax: that it’s fine because tax avoidance ‘is legal’; that taxes are ‘too high’; that tax is ‘theft’; that the corporate tax is unfair ‘double tax’; that it is inefficient and should be replaced by VAT; that corporate directors have a fiduciary duty to minimize tax; that the tax falls most heavily on ‘workers’; and that the Laffer Curve [declining revenues from higher taxes] and so-called Dynamic Scoring [of incentive effects] are useful guides to policy.

In short, the corporate income tax is worth fighting for.

The full report, and a shorter summary, are free to download from the Tax Justice Network website.

In the May 2015 issue of New Internationalist, David Ransom will be laying banking bare in The Big Bank Boondoggle.

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