You may recall a post from the other day calling for a robust discussion of alternatives to our current system for “taxing”—that’s right, it belongs in quotes—multinationals.
Well, here’s an excellent example of such a discussion from the NYT’s Room for Debate column.
The fundamental problem is the ability under our current tax code of multinationals to hide or shelter their income, to book their earnings in places with low or no taxes at all, and then to just leave them there, at least on paper, forever (“deferral”).
Therefore, the solutions thus tend to range along a continuum from either giving up on trying to close the shelters and finding other ways to tax foreign earnings, to making the current system work through international cooperation, to ending deferral.
The corporations themselves tend to want a territorial system, which pretty much locks in what we have today, as my CBPP colleague Chye-Ching Huang points out.
Why not end the “deferral” benefit and tax foreign profits every year, like all other taxes? Corporate lobbyists have another idea: a 0 percent or very low U.S. tax rate on their foreign profits. They give this a sophisticated name — a “territorial” tax regime. It would get rid of the incentive for multinationals to keep profits offshore, but it would increase their incentive to shift profits and investments overseas in the first place.
Avi-Yonah, suggests that going territorial may seem ideal given the way globalization has muddied corporations’ national identities, but:
…as the Apple case shows, such a territorial system invites multinationals to shift their profits to tax havens. Avoiding that outcome without over- or under-taxation requires a degree of coordination among countries that is difficult to achieve.
So what should we do?
Chye-Ching is right that ending deferral is the right place to start the negotiations (Hungerford agrees, calling it the “simplest and most direct way of taxing offshore income”).
Moving down the continuum, Altshuler argues for a minimum tax on foreign earnings, an idea the White House also supports. It’s actually a simple and elegant solution in that it says to the Apples and Googles and GEs of the world, “go ahead and serve up your double Dutch Irish sandwiches, but first the US Treasury’s going to impose a tax of X%–she says 15%–on all your foreign income.”
Auerbach also suggests we stop trying to figure out where companies actually reside or where they produce their assets and income, and just have a destination tax on a firm’s earnings based on where its products are sold.
…earnings from the production of a smart phone sold in the United States would be subject to U.S. corporate tax, regardless of the company’s residence or where the company reports its production to have occurred.
The nice wrinkle here is that once you determine a MNCs liability based on the destination of where it makes it sales, it has no incentive pretend it’s sourcing everything from a beach in the Cayman’s. That said, I’m not convinced that firms with less tangible products than smart phones couldn’t find ways to make it look like their selling everything somewhere that happens to have a zero tax rate.
But the main thing is that we keep this conversation alive until we get somewhere with it. I don’t believe there’s much oxygen here in DC for all out tax reform, but corporate tax reform might have a chance, especially since the White House has agreed it should be revenue neutral (a big concession as far as I’m concerned, but there it is). Closing down international tax avoidance should be a key part of that reform.