Real disputes among professional economists rarely make their way into political debates. But that’s what’s happened with the issue of whether the Trump administration’s proposal to cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent would mainly benefit shareholders or workers. Both sides make coherent arguments – but in the end, the evidence supports the proposal’s opponents.
Those opponents start with a traditional tenet of public finance: Taxes on assets are borne by the owners of those assets, so cutting taxes on corporations would mainly benefit their shareholders. .
The proponents cite another tenet of public finance: Taxes are borne by those unable to escape them or, in more technical terms, corporate taxes fall on the least mobile factors of production. U.S. multinational companies have shifted substantial capital assets to other countries, from their patents to factories;. But American workers are stuck here. This suggests that much of the burden of U.S. corporate taxes could fall on workers – and consequently cutting corporate taxes should benefit them.
Economic researchers have found support for both tenets, but most of the economic literature has estimated that 70 percent to 85 percent of the burden of corporate taxes falls on shareholders and 15 percent to 30 percent on workers. A 2012 study by the U.S. Treasury – one recently excised from the Department’s website – calculated those proportions at 82 percent for shareholders and 18 percent for workers.
Conservatives insist that globalization has rendered those findings outdated. Citing research by Kevin Hassett, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (and my friend) and others, they point to strong statistical associations between reductions in corporate tax rates over the last two decades and strong wage gains, especially in Eastern and Western Europe. Their logic is as follows: As U.S. and native corporations sited more production in low-tax countries, those capital investments raised both the demand for and productivity of workers in those places, driving up their wages.
I have no doubt that those findings are correct – but it does not follow that cutting U.S. corporate taxes would drive up investment and the wages of American workers. .
First, the studies do not show that U.S. companies invested in those countries to avoid high U.S. corporate taxes. Certainly, the large U.S. software and pharmaceutical companies that transferred the ownership of their patents and copyrights to their Irish subsidiaries did so to elude U.S. taxes – transfers which created very few jobs in Ireland. By contrast, U.S. foreign direct investments that involve building factories and setting up new organizations in other countries occur to serve foreign customers in the regions of those investments. Lowering our corporate tax rate will not change that.
Similarly, U.S. and foreign companies invest here to serve the world’s largest national market. Moreover, taxes are not a barrier, since Congress provides a cornucopia of tax breaks to reduce corporate tax burdens well below 35 percent. According to a 2016 Treasury study, the effective corporate tax burden averaged 22 percent over the period 2007 to 2011. Some of that certainly reflected U.S. companies’ foreign earnings that remain untaxed by the United States. But some industries with few foreign operations also paid below-average rates. For example, the effective tax burden on U.S. utilities and real estate companies averaged, respectively, 10 percent and 20 percent. Right now, then, companies can operate in the United States at an effective tax rate equal to or lower than the administration’s proposal.
In the end, the only real issue is whether the tax proposal would induce U.S. or foreign companies to expand their American operations in ways that raise the demand for and productivity of U.S. workers. We cannot know for certain. Nevertheless, the 2016 Treasury study does provide on-point support for its opponents.
The Treasury found that while the effective corporate tax rate averaged 22 percent from 2007 to 2011, it actually fell substantially over those years — from 26 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2011. We did experience four years of strong employment gains from 2013 to 2016, which mainly restored jobs lost in the financial collapse and deep recession. Yet, alas, the falling corporate tax burden did not ignite the surge in business investment and wage gains predicted by the administration’s logic. That’s game, set and match for its opponents.