We’re #1! U.S. Officially Has the Top Corporate Tax Rate. Or Not.

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Americans are infatuated with the superlative. We are constitutionally drawn to the best, the biggest, the most. But few of us rejoiced at the news that as of April 1st, the United States had assumed the title of having the highest corporate tax rate in the world. The dubious feat was widely reported after Japan officially lowered its headline corporate tax rate Sunday from 39.5% to 38.01% — below the U.S.’s average combined federal-state rate of 39.2%.

The occasion gave low-tax advocates the opportunity to complain about the burdensome American tax regime and its deleterious effects on investment, growth, and employment. Those on the left countered that the effective corporate tax rate, or taxes paid after loopholes are factored in, is actually much lower than 39.2%. Indeed, by one measure, corporations only paid an effective rate of 12.1% in 2011, although that phenomenon was a product of temporary tax credits for investment.

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So are corporate taxes in America relatively burdensome, or does big business not pay its fair share? A quick Google search on the subject will produce such a broad and conflicting array of statements and figures to make even the most dedicated policy wonk’s head spin. The unfortunate truth is that tax policy is so nuanced that it’s difficult to make clear-cut statements as to the relative onerousness of tax policy between countries. Indeed, even the corporate tax figure used in the media to report this story is a rough estimate. The 39.2% headline rate being reported in the press is the federal rate of 35% plus the average corporate tax rate of the individual states, which vary widely. Effective rates for individual corporations will differ greatly depending on a company’s industry and home state, among other factors.

Therefore, attempting to rank countries by their corporate tax rates requires being more than a little reductive. These rankings might make for good headlines or political sound bites, but they aren’t otherwise illuminating. The real story is a great deal more complicated. An analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation shows that different ways of measuring tax rates can produce a wide range of estimates of the true rate that corporations pay. They pored over 19 different academic studies on the subject published in the past seven years alone,  and found the estimates of effective corporate rates ranged from a low of 23% to as high as 34.9%.

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So trying to come up with a definitive ranking of effective corporate tax rates between countries is an exercise in futility. The best we can do is to try to have general understanding of how the U.S. rate stacks up against other countries. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on this issue. The Tax Foundation report and others contend that, at the the very least, the U.S.’s effective corporate tax rate is on the higher end of the scale for developed countries.  Other reports suggest that the U.S.’s effective corporate tax rate is actually lower than the weighted average of other developed nations. One thing is certain, however: The trend internationally has been towards lower corporate tax rates. The U.S. rate, meanwhile, has remained steady for twenty years.

Listening to the national debate on the issue, it appears this trend is broadly understood by both parties; both President Obama and Republicans have called for lowering the headline U.S. corporate tax rate. Beyond that, however, there is very little consensus. Some have argued that you could achieve lower corporate rates by shifting the burden to individual shareholders, but that solution is perhaps not politically viable.

Of course, there may be some problems with this solution beyond the political. Economist Martin Sullivan, who writes extensively on tax-related issues, reminds us that when corporate tax rates were lower than personal rates prior to the last major tax code overhaul in 1986, “wealthy owners of closely held businesses kept as much money as possible in subchapter C corporations.” Sullivan doesn’t therefore agree that there should be parity between personal and corporate tax rates, but his point shows that with each new wrinkle in tax policy opportunities are created for those with resources to game the system. That’s why economists generally view simple tax schemes with few rules and exceptions as being more efficient. The less time we spend on taxes means more time spent on making stuff or performing services that the market demands. More progressive tax regimes are generally more complicated, because the emphasis is fairness rather than simplicity or efficiency.

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That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have a progressive tax regime in the United States. Inefficiency is the price you pay for fairness, and it’s the job of a democratically elected government to interpret how much fairness we want as a society and how much inefficiency we are willing to tolerate to obtain it. In a globalized economy, however, there are factors outside of our control – namely what other countries do with their tax rates. And the world is moving towards lower corporate tax rates. According to study from PricewaterhouseCoopers, there have been 133 corporate tax cuts globally in the past six years. If the U.S. lags too far behind other countries, it will undoubtedly effect its ability to attract investment in the economy. It appears that Democrats and Republicans see eye to eye on this point. How to pay for lower corporate rates, however, is an issue that it the two parties don’t appear to be agreeing on any time soon.