By now everyone has heard about presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that “corporations are people.” “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people,” Romney explained to hecklers in Iowa.
Of course, it’s true that corporate earnings eventually go to people and that taxes on corporate earnings are borne by people. Those people are primarily the shareholders, who receive smaller stock dividends and or capital gains because companies pay corporate income taxes. Corporate executive pay is also affected by corporate taxes because so much of it is in the form of stock options and similar vehicles.
The serious problem is that the shareholders who own these corporations are not paying enough, thanks to the loopholes that allow corporations like GE, Boeing, Verizon and others to avoid taxation entirely.
However, some corporate lobbyists and economists who sympathize with them now argue that the people who ultimately pay corporate income taxes are actually the workers. Up to 80 percent of corporate income taxes, they claim, actually fall on labor, rather than the owners of capital. This happens, they argue, because corporations will respond to U.S. taxes by lowering wages or moving operations and jobs to countries with lower taxes, which will also hurt American workers.
They’re wrong. As we have advocated reforms to raise revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes, some have cited these misguided economic models and asked us whether or not higher corporate taxes would ultimately harm the working people we want to help. The answer is absolutely not.
Tax expert Lee Sheppard makes the obvious point that we’ve often made (subscription required): “if labor bore 80 percent of the burden of the corporate income tax, corporations wouldn't care about it at all. They don't fight high value added taxes in Europe, because the burden is clearly borne by consumers.”
Indeed, corporations lobby Congress furiously for reduced corporate income taxes, and they would not bother if they did not believe their shareholders were the ones affected by them.
Higher Taxes Won’t Drive U.S. Corporations Offshore
American corporations certainly have been moving operations and jobs overseas in the past decades. But low labor costs in many foreign countries appears to the main force driving this trend, not lower foreign income taxes.
A recent article explains that GE has shifted operations offshore, but it actually pays higher taxes in those foreign countries than it does in the U.S. (Of course, one feature of our tax system, “deferral,” probably does encourage companies to move jobs offshore and we have urged Congress to repeal it.)
The Debate among Economists
ITEP and other organizations that provide distributional analyses of tax policies, including the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, assume that corporate income taxes are ultimately borne by the owners of capital (corporate shareholders and owners of other businesses indirectly affected). Since capital is disproportionately owned by the wealthy, corporate income taxes are therefore very progressive taxes.
But in recent years some economists have claimed that corporate taxes simply push investment out of the country, meaning workers in the U.S. lose their jobs or settle for lower-paying jobs (meaning labor ultimately bears the burden of the tax).
But other economists and analysts disagree. For example, a working paper from the Congressional Budget Office suggests that investment cannot move across international borders with perfect ease and that goods produced in one country are not always perfectly substitutable for those produced in another country.
The working paper further suggests a model that takes into account the corporate taxes of other countries, meaning corporations cannot escape taxation so easily because most places where they could reasonably operate will have some level of corporate taxation.
When the economic models take all this into account, they lead to the conclusion that most of the corporate income tax is borne by capital.
The People Who Own Corporations Are Not Paying Enough in Taxes
Once we establish that the owners of capital are ultimately paying the corporate income tax, the next question is whether or not they should be paying more than they do now. Mitt Romney seems to believe they pay more than enough already.
As middle-class Americans are told they must sacrifice some of their public services in order to help balance the federal budget, the obvious question is whether or not the owners of capital, who ultimately pay corporate income taxes, can afford to sacrifice as well. The answer is: absolutely.
Many corporations use loopholes to avoid paying the corporate income tax, as our recent report on 12 corporate tax dodgers demonstrates.
Corporate profits can accumulate tax-free before they are paid out as dividends, and two-thirds of those dividends will go to tax-exempt entities like pension funds or university endowments where they can continue to accumulate tax-free before they reach any individuals. The one-third of corporate stock dividends that do go directly to individuals are currently taxed at a low, top rate of 15 percent. (We have explained before that these are reasons why corporate profits are not double-taxed, as some believe they are.)
So the short answer to Mitt Romney is, yes, corporate taxes are ultimately paid by people, the shareholders, and Congress needs to close the loopholes that currently allow them to avoid these taxes.
Photos via Gage Skidmore and IMF Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0