Solutions on Inversions and Corporate Tax Reform

August 22, 2014

In a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School’s Mihir Desai and Bill George gave some great insight on inversions, who really pays the corporate tax, profit shifting, and corporate tax reform.

Below are a few selections from the interview, but the whole story is worth a read.

To start us off, Bill George on why we are seeing so many inversions:

“The problem is definitely with the tax code. We have a dysfunctional tax code in the United States. We have among the highest tax rates anywhere in the world, and what’s happened is companies are paying taxes on foreign earnings that they generate overseas but they’re not bringing them back to the United States because they don’t want to pay at the U.S. corporate tax rate of 35%. You’ve got some $2 trillion of cash trapped overseas, so companies are looking for ways to use that cash effectively. It’s driven many U.S. companies to buy foreign companies, but in many cases they’d much rather deploy that cash in the United States.

“One very interesting proposal came from Robert Reich, a liberal Democratic economist who recommended that the U.S. go to the system that almost all other industrial nations have of just taxing people where they earn the money. Personally I think that would solve the problem.”

Mihir Desai on the problems with the tax code and why it needs to be fixed:

“This is the manifestation of two big problems. One is a high rate, and the second is this worldwide system, both of which are highly distinctive relative to the rest of the world. One of the things that’s happened recently is that leading countries like the UK and Japan, which used to look more like us, with relatively high rates and a worldwide system, have left. So now we’re really all alone — and that’s why these transactions are happening more.

“A meaningful reform would combine two things. One, a considerably lower rate — and I think you need to get below 25% or 20% for it to be meaningful. And the second, as Bill mentioned, is a switch to a territorial regime. I actually am optimistic that we can get there; there’s a fair amount of consensus about that. The tricky part is where does the money come from to fund all of that, and there I think people divide up.”

Mihir Desai on whether or not we should tax corporations:

“The corporate tax is a hard tax to like. It’s a hard tax to like because it’s a second layer of taxation and it’s entity-level taxation. So it’s always going to be dominated by a tax on individuals, because you’re giving another margin for distortion and another margin for evasion.

“The reason why we might still like one, albeit it a low-rate one, is because without it you can run into some problems with individuals shielding and hiding their own income. Justin Fox Inc. can all of a sudden become a vehicle, if it’s got a zero rate, for shielding a lot of income. So we need a rate, and it’s probably positive.”

Mihir Desaie on the notion of corporations not paying enough in taxes currently and who really pays the corporate tax:

We know that corporations don’t per se pay taxes. That tax is going to be borne by shareholders, workers, or customers. Those are the only people who can actually end up paying the tax. So while people like to think about corporate tax reform as a sop to big business, the reality is that what we know about the corporate tax is it’s most likely borne by workers.”

There is lots more from this interview here.

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