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This originally appeared on KeriAnn Wells' Open Salon blog.
The United States is teeming for tax reform. Obama speaks eloquently of the rich “paying their fair share” while Republicans pledge never to raise taxes. Warren Buffett is taxed less than his receptionist. Occupiers rally for the 99 percent, while Tea Partyers rally behind 9-9-9.
Meanwhile, 25 of the Forbes top 100 companies paid their CEOs more than they paid Uncle Sam in 2010. Some of the big names are GE, Prudential and Verizon, all of which paid their CEOs well over $10 million, but paid no income tax whatsoever.
That’s right, they paid nothing. This is especially strange since the U.S. recently surpassed Japan as the country with the highest corporate tax rate. weighing in at 35 percent.
But the rate doesn’t tell the whole story. Current rules for multinational corporations (MNCs) allow companies to defer income earned in other countries, effectively paying no taxes at all until the money is returned to the U.S. or “repatriated.” Companies can defer income indefinitely, and are currently salivating at the prospect of a tax holiday that would allow repatriation at a meager 5.25 percent. In the last holiday of 2004. higher corporate margins did not lead to more jobs.
Beyond deferrals, MNCs also can deduct taxes paid to
foreign governments from their U.S. tax burden, and can even offset credits earned in high-tax countries onto income earned in low-tax countries.
These complex tax provisions are easy for some firms to exploit, especially if they have lots of tax attorneys. Last year, Bloomberg exposed Google’s fancy tax-avoidance technique known as the “Double Irish” and the “Dutch Sandwich.” (No, it is not a fun game of jump-rope.) While selling America’s intellectual property rights to overseas subsidiaries, Google aligned loopholes in four countries’ tax codes, ultimately reducing its total tax burden to 2.4 percent. In fairness, Google’s CEO made a measly $313,219 .
This tendency of MNCs to find complementary loopholes among countries harkens back to the pre-globalization era, when multistate companies would shift operations to the lowest-tax states. The race to the bottom of tax revenues was relieved when states pooled their collective bargaining power to create more consistent tax rules.
To end the race to the bottom, states adopted a new approach to taxation. Known as formulary apportionment (FA). companies divide their total tax burden among host states based on the percentage of sales (and sometimes payroll and property) located in each state, rather than on the elusive headquarters’ location. The apportionment approach increases simplicity (which businesses love) and increases tax revenue (which governments love.) That’s what we call a win-win.