The Real Reason for Public Finance Crisis

Published on
The Guardian/UK

The Real Reason for Public Finance Crisis

If you want to know why we have budget deficits all over, look no further than the roaring success of corporate tax avoidance

Nothing better shows corporate control over the government than Washington's basic response to the current economic crisis. First, we had "the rescue", then "the recovery". Trillions in public money flowed to the biggest US banks, insurance companies, etc. That "bailed" them out (is it just me or is there a suggestion of criminality in that phrase?), while we waited for benefits to "trickle down" to the rest of us.

As usual, the "trickle-down" part has not happened. Large corporations and their investors kept the government's money for themselves; their profits and stock market "recovered" nicely. We get unemployment, home-foreclosures, job benefit cuts and growing job insecurity. As the crisis hits states and cities, politicians avoid raising corporate taxes in favor of cutting government services and jobs – witness Wisconsin, etc.

Might government bias favoring corporations be deserved, a reward for taxes they pay? No: corporations – especially the larger ones – have avoided taxes as effectively as they have controlled government expenditures to benefit them.

Compare income taxes received by the federal government from individuals and from corporations (their profits are treated as their income), based on statistics from the Office of Management and the Budget in the White House, and the trend is clear. During the Great Depression, federal income tax receipts from individuals and corporations were roughly equal. During the second world war, income tax receipts from corporations were 50% greater than from individuals. The national crises of depression and war produced successful popular demands for corporations to contribute significant portions of federal tax revenues.

US corporations resented that arrangement, and after the war, they changed it. Corporate profits financed politicians' campaigns and lobbies to make sure that income tax receipts from individuals rose faster than those from corporations and that tax cuts were larger for corporations than for individuals. By the 1980s, individual income taxes regularly yielded four times more than taxes on corporations' profits.

Since the second world war, corporations have shifted much of the federal tax burden from themselves to the public – and especially onto the middle-income members of the public. No wonder a tax "revolt" developed, yet it did not push to stop or reverse that shift. Corporations had focused public anger elsewhere, against government expenditures as "wasteful" and against public employees as inefficient.

Organizations such as Chambers of Commerce and corporations' academic and political allies together shaped the public debate. They did not want it to be about who does and does not pay the taxes. Instead, they steered the "tax revolt" against taxes in general (on businesses and individuals alike). The corporations' efforts saved them far more in reduced taxes than the costs of their political contributions, lobbyists' fees and public relations campaigns.

At the same time, corporations also lobbied successfully for many loopholes in the tax laws. The official federal tax rate on profits is now around 35% for large corporations, which theoretically have to pay additional state taxes on their profits and local taxes on their property (land, buildings, business inventories, etc). Those official and theoretical tax obligations have been used to support conservatives' claims that corporations pay half or more of their profits to federal, state and local levels of government combined. However, because of loopholes, the truth is very different. The actual tax payments of corporations, and especially large corporations, are far lower than their official, theoretical obligations.

The most comprehensive recent study of what larger corporations actually pay by three academic accountants – professors at Duke, MIT and the University of North Carolina – gets at that truth. It examined a large sample of corporations. Their average turned out to be a rate of total taxation (federal, state and local combined) below 30 %. The study concluded:

"We find a significant fraction of firms that appear to be able to successfully avoid large portions of the corporate income tax over sustained periods of time. Using a 10-year measure of tax avoidance, 546 firms, comprising 26.3% of our sample, are able to maintain a cash effective tax rate of 20% or less. The mean firm has a 10-year cash effective tax rate of approximately 29.6%."

General Electric (GE) deserves special mention. The New York Times reported that its total tax payment amounted to 14.3% over the last five years. Citizens for Tax Justice corrected that down to 3.4%, as the profits tax it paid in the US. Thus, GE paid a far lower tax rate on its income than most Americans paid on theirs. In 2009, GE received a huge $140bn bailout guarantee of its debt from Washington. By choosing GE's chief executive, Jeffrey R Immelt, to head his economic advisory panel, President Obama effectively rewarded the corporate program: give us more and tax us less.

Corporations repeated at the state and local levels what they accomplished federally. According to the US Census Bureau, corporations paid taxes on their profits to states and localities totaling $24.7bn in 1988, while individuals then paid income taxes of $90bn. However, by 2009, while corporate tax payments had roughly doubled (to $49.1bn), individual income taxes had more than tripled (to $290bn).

If corporations paid taxes proportionate to the benefits they get from government and in fair proportion to what individuals pay, most US citizens would finally get the tax relief they so desperately seek.

Richard Wolff

Richard D Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. He is currently a visiting professor in the graduate program in international affairs of the New School University, New York City. Richard also teaches classes regularly at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan. His most recent book is Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It (2009). A full archive of Richard's work, including videos and podcasts, can be found on his site

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