Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Prioritize and Compromise

On Monday, Michael Durst elaborated on a previous tax reform proposal (see Durst, "An Employment, Equity, and Competitiveness Tax Act," Tax Notes, Sept. 26, 2011; discussing Durst, "Radical Centrism and the Corporate Income Tax," Tax Notes, Sept. 5, 2011).

Durst describes his proposal as "a two-pronged, radically centrist tax package" with two key elements:
1. A reduction in the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, along with elimination of opportunities to shift income to tax havens and other significant corporate base broadeners. The goal would be to increase U.S. job creation, both through the effects of the lower rate and by eliminating current tax haven techniques that encourage job creation outside instead of within the United States.

2. A reform of the individual income tax that would make the tax more progressive, primarily by increases in rates applying to the highest-income taxpayers. Maximum rates nevertheless would remain low by historical standards....
I don't agree with Durst's entire reform proposal, but I agree with Durst that legislators need to prioritize and compromise. Our tax system is a ramshackle structure decomposing from within, and I'd love to strip it down to the studs and begin renovation. However, if we have to renovate incrementally, I'd start with corporate tax reform.

Our corporate tax rate is uncompetitive by international standards. Capital is mobile and ruthlessly unpatriotic. As such, it migrates to the highest after-tax return opportunities. The uncompetitive U.S. tax rate discourages capital allocation to U.S. businesses by decreasing after-tax returns to investors. This has a pernicious ripple effect that hits the capital-intensive manufacturing industry particularly hard. Less capital means a higher cost of capital. A higher cost of capital means higher input costs. Higher input costs mean higher-cost products and services. Higher-cost products and services are less competitive in domestic and international markets (and more expensive for domestic consumers).

Compounding matters, the U.S. transfer pricing regime is porous, favoring multinational enterprises that can migrate intangibles offshore over U.S. businesses with tangible assets, operations and employees in the United States. The deck is effectively stacked against U.S. businesses relative to their multinational and international competitors.

A growing consensus of tax professionals, academics and economists has acknowledged the need to reform the corporate tax system by lowering rates. Hopefully, that message will begin to resonate with legislators, who are struggling to cope with our lapsed economic hegemony. Although I don't expect a "grass roots" movement for corporate tax reform, I hope that the most zealous advocates of high corporate tax rates achieve irrelevance.

Meanwhile, there is no free lunch. Although corporate tax reform is a priority, we can't escape the fact that government obligations will continue to swell as the Baby Boom generation enters retirement. Realistically, we'll need to offset a decrease in corporate tax revenues with another source of revenues. Legislators should consider a VAT, and they should consider progressive increases in average tax rates as a trade-off for corporate income tax reform.

In particular, a reduction in the corporate tax rate could be partially offset by eliminating the tax preference for certain investment income. Corporate earnings are taxed at a 35% top marginal rate, and the 15% rate applicable to qualified dividends and long-term capital gains reduces the overall tax burden on the underlying business income. By lowering the corporate tax rate, legislators would undermine the conceptual justification for the 15% rate.

The existing political climate is depressing to those of us who don't extract power or lobbying money from gridlock. Tax reform seems virtually impossible before 2012. However, we don't need a "Buffett Rule" to jump start the process. Corporate tax reform is possible if legislators would simply prioritize and compromise. A reduction in corporate tax rates, offset by taxing investment income at the same rates as ordinary income, could be an important step towards fundamental tax reform.

Stay tuned for more details on my own corporate tax reform proposal.

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