Loopholes, Deductions, and Quirks

The United States makes progress by taking baby steps. That has been my mantra in several columns over the years. It took all three branches of government using hundreds of court decisions, executive orders, enacted laws, and even a Constitutional Amendment or three to get adequate civil rights codified.

There is a reason we haven’t had tax reform since 1986. The tax codes are not only complicated, but also hot button issues that draw panic-like reactions from citizens and elected officials alike. We do need to revise and update our tax laws, but infrastructure construction and healthcare reform would yield more money for middle class folks than a tax cut today. Keeping with precedent, we would be better served to take one step at a time. If the total code is reviewed and put to a vote all at once, it will surely create winners and losers. That doesn’t need to happen.

When it comes to sending in our hard-earned money, we all have our pet deductions, loopholes, and other quirks in the tax law that allow us, individually, to pay less. Maybe that is wrong. Maybe we should all pay the same percent of what we make into the government coffers. But, I suggest we defer that conversation for later. The uproar over cutting home mortgage or state/local tax deductions from individual federal returns would overshadow any other proposals. Doubling the standard deduction, so many can simplify and not itemize sounds good, but don’t buy in until we get a better gestalt snapshot.

Mr. Trump likes to say that we are the highest taxed people of any nation. That is just not true. Our average tax is near the bottom of personal taxes. Corporate taxes are another subject.

Support seems to back some changes in the business tax. Even that will not be easy. Our 35% is indeed one of the top rates that countries charge to do business. That high rate could cause businesses to think about going elsewhere, causing the U.S. to receive even less tax income. However, the truth is that due to those loopholes, deductions, and tax quirks, U.S. corporations actually pay less than 20% on average. That puts us squarely in the middle of any list of corporate tax burdens.

Okay, I’m for lowering the rate. I’ve been convinced that it is too high. If we lower the true rate to the effective rate–20%–theoretically, there shouldn’t be a drop in what the government collects from business, if, at the same time, we eliminate all the loopholes, deductions, and quirks so the 20% doesn’t get any lower. That would be fine with me, but it’s too simple. If we are revising the corporate tax code, we have to be sure it is fair.

There are nearly 100 large corporations that pay much less than the effective rate. Several, including giants General Electric, General Motors, United Airlines pay zero in taxes despite posting profits. 93 Fortune 500 companies that also posted profit between 2008 and 2015, including such giants as IBM, Wells Fargo and Verizon, paid less than 10%.

AT&T was tracked during that time. It pays 8% and to thank us for giving them billions of dollars in a windfall, they reduced their workforce by 80,000 and used the money to buy their own stock. This act artificially inflated their stock prices so they could glean higher dividends for investors and much higher pay for their executives. While these companies are hefting a minimum tax burden, they have raised CEO benefits by 18% while workers are stuck with 4%. They did not, as Trickle Down dogma goes, invest in the growth of the company and hire workers. That just never happens. The only issue companies use to determine whether or not to grow the company is demand. When they sell more stuff or services, they grow. And, the only way they can sell more stuff or services is to get more money into mass consumers’ pockets.

If Trickle Down worked, those 93 companies with profit and extremely low tax burdens would be showing the most hiring. From 2008 to 2015 the private sector worker growth was 6%. Those 93 companies showed a 1% drop in total employees. At the same time the average CEO’s compensation grew by 18% while the common worker got a 4% raise. Again, giving Big-Co (Big Companies) tax breaks only enriches the shareholders and the executives. Big-Co tax windfalls are often detrimental to workers.

All businesses are not created equally, and they should be evaluated differently for tax purposes. Many small businesses pay taxes equal to what the owners pay in personal tax. That is usually about 25%–much lower than the 35% stated rate, but more than the 20% actual paid, and way more than most of the giants who contribute little.

If a revision in the tax code is intended to grow the economy, which conservatives, likely rightly, claim is the only/best way to lower the debt, the only logical way is to be sure the largest corporations all pay a rate of about 20%–no loopholes, deductions, or tax code quirks. Then taxes can be cut for small businesses and middle-class workers with money to spare.

Big-Co will balk as surely as there is snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro, but those companies that make the most money must pay a fair share. When that happens, evaluate what is actually yielded, before tackling personal income, estate tax variances, or any other loopholes, deductions, or quirks in the tax code.

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