Bloomberg View columnist Tyler Cowen received quite a bit of criticism for his endorsement of President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut the federal corporate tax to 15 percent from 35 percent. But Cowen is broadly right — lowering the tax is a good idea.
One reason is that corporate taxation isn’t the greatest way of raising revenue. When you tax a corporation, it’s not just the shareholders who pay. Prices for customers go up to some degree, and take-home wages for employees — both at the top and the bottom of the pay scale — go down. It’s difficult to tell who pays what — some economists estimate that shareholders pay essentially all of the tax, while others conclude that workers pay the lion’s share. There’s also a chance that some piece of the corporate tax might fall on those who can least afford to pay, specifically low-wage workers and poor people. That uncertainty implies that society should shift the tax burden from corporations to wealthy individuals. That will ensure that less of the cost of government falls on the poor. Since corporate tax represents only 11 percent of U.S. revenue, replacing some of that with higher top-end income taxes shouldn’t be too difficult.
There’s also the question of whether corporate taxes reduce investment. In the 1980s, some economists concluded that taxes on capital — of which corporate taxes are one variety — should be zero. Since capital — the physical kind, buildings and machines and so on — allows greater production in the future, taxing it today just means a smaller economy, and therefore a smaller tax base, down the road. That result came from a highly unrealistic model, and later economists showed that when you tweak the model a bit, the optimal corporate tax is no longer zero. Still, the U.S. should be focusing on ways to boost business investment, which has fallen as a share of output in recent years.
There is plenty of evidence that corporate tax cuts can raise investment levels. A 2009 paper by economists Simeon Djankov, Tim Ganser, Caralee McLiesh, Rita Ramalho, and Andrei Shleifer found that lower corporate taxes are correlated with more investment. And when Canada cut taxes for some kinds of companies but not for others in the early 2000s, the companies that got tax cuts invested more. A number of other studies find similar results. So in this climate of low investment, the U.S. should try corporate tax cuts as one method of getting businesses to spend more.
But perhaps the clearest reason to cut corporate taxes is the waste they generate through avoidance. A key, often overlooked fact about the U.S. corporate tax is that many businesses manage to pay little or nothing. One of the most common ways to do this is to shift profits overseas, through transfer pricing, inversions, or other perfectly legal methods, to a tax haven country like the Cayman Islands. There, a company can avoid taxes indefinitely, reinvesting the profits in its business and letting them compound. If the company wants to cash out, it has to repatriate its cash and pay taxes to the U.S., but the returns from delaying the date of payment can be substantial. And often, a corporation can avoid taxes altogether by waiting for the U.S. to enact a repatriation holiday. In addition to tax havens, there are many other legal loopholes businesses can exploit to avoid taxes.
As a result of avoidance, the U.S. doesn’t collect much more of corporations’ profits than other countries do, despite having a much higher official tax rate. A number of recent studies find that on average, U.S. companies pay about 27 percent to 30 percent of their profits in taxes, compared with 24 percent to 26 percent average for other nations.
Meanwhile, because of tax avoidance, the true rate isn’t closely tied to the headline rate. The official U.S. rate has remained at 35 percent since 1993, with only minor changes. But the percent of corporate profits collected through the tax system has fallen quite a bit.
All that avoidance costs real resources — hours of labor by tax accountants and financial professionals, buildings for them to work in, and computers to keep everything in order. By cutting the corporate tax rate, the U.S. would reduce the incentive for companies to waste all that money avoiding taxes.
Reducing the reward from tax avoidance might also lower an important barrier to entry in U.S. industries. Tax avoidance probably has big fixed costs — you have to hire teams of lawyers and set up foreign subsidiaries. Those fixed costs make it difficult from small startups to compete on a level playing field with big, established companies, worsening the problem of monopoly power in the economy. Cutting the corporate tax rate would make the system fairer.
So although we shouldn’t expect corporate tax cuts to be a cure-all, there are a number of reasons to slash the official rate. Most advanced countries have already done this. A rate of 15 percent might be a bit extreme, but a cut to 30 or 25 percent would almost certainly be a good move.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.