Project Syndicate | December 2, 2013
Corporate tax reform is one of the few issues that garner bipartisan support in a deeply divided US Congress. The current system, all agree, is deeply flawed: the corporate tax rate is too high by global standards, and the corporate tax base is too narrow, owing to numerous credits, deductions, and special provisions that distort economic decisions.
But there is significant debate about how to fix the system. One major area of disagreement is how to tax the foreign earnings of US multinational companies (MNCs), a disagreement highlighted by the recent proposals issued by Senator Max Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
The current US system is based on a worldwide principle: the foreign earnings of US companies are subject to US corporate tax, with the amount owed offset by a tax credit for taxes paid in foreign jurisdictions. Most other developed countries, by contrast, have adopted “territorial” systems that largely exempt their MNCs’ foreign earnings from home-country taxation.
MNCs headquartered in countries that employ a worldwide tax system are at a disadvantage when they compete in third-country markets with MNCs headquartered in territorial systems. Whereas US MNCs must pay the high US corporate tax rate on profits earned by their affiliates in low-tax foreign locations, MNCs headquartered in territorial systems pay only the local tax rate on such profits.
For example, when a US firm and a firm headquartered in a territorial system compete in a country where the local tax rate is 17%, the foreign firm owes 17% of its profits in taxes to the local country, while the US firm owes 35% of its profits in taxes – 17% to the local country plus 18% to the US. That difference translates into a sizeable cost advantage that allows the foreign firm to charge lower prices and capture market share from its US counterpart.
Current US law attempts to offset this competitive disadvantage through deferral: US MNCs are allowed to defer – potentially indefinitely – payment of US corporate tax on their foreign earnings until the earnings are repatriated to their US parent firms. Not surprisingly, most US MNCs take advantage of the deferral option for at least some of their foreign earnings.
As a means of bringing back this estimated $1.7 trillion in foreign earnings, the Senate Finance Committee’s draft proposals suggest the elimination of deferral. However, faced with the threat to their competitiveness that this would pose, many US MNCs would shift their headquarters to countries with lower corporate tax rates and territorial systems.
The global competitiveness of US MNCs and where they are based matter to the health of the US economy. Despite the rapid growth of foreign markets, US MNCs still locate significant shares of their real economic activities – about 65% of their sales, 68% of their employment, 70% of their capital investment, and 84% of their R&D – at home. Much of their domestic activity – particularly R&D, which has significant local spillover benefits – is related to their headquarter functions. And foreign direct investment by US MNCs is not zero-sum: it encourages rather than reduces employment, investment, and R&D in the US.
Deferral is essential to maintaining US MNCs’ competitiveness as long as the US relies on a worldwide corporate-taxation system. But deferral is not without significant costs for US MNCs and the US economy alike. Deferred earnings held abroad are “locked out” of the US economy, in the sense that they are not directly available for domestic use by US MNCs and their shareholders.
Moreover, deferral distorts corporate balance sheets and capital-allocation decisions. For example, firms may use earnings held abroad as collateral to take on more debt and incur higher borrowing costs at home. Or they may use these earnings to make investments abroad that yield a lower return than investments at home. Overall, such efficiency costs are estimated to be 1-5% of deferred earnings, rising as deferrals accumulate.
As the Senate Finance Committee’s draft proposals suggest, the US should jettison its worldwide approach to corporate taxation and adopt a territorial system for taxing US MNCs’ foreign earnings. Such a system would provide a level playing field that supports US MNCs’ global competitiveness. It would also eliminate the efficiency costs of deferral and boost US MNCs’ repatriation of foreign earnings, with significant benefits for output and employment.
Based on recent research that incorporates conservative assumptions, we estimate that under a territorial system US MNCs would repatriate an additional $100 billion a year from future foreign earnings, adding about 150,000 US jobs a year on a sustained basis. We also estimate that under a transition plan for taxing the existing stock of foreign earnings held abroad, similar to one proposed by US Representative Dave Camp, US MNCs would repatriate about $1 trillion of these earnings, adding more than $200 billion to US GDP and about 1.5 million US jobs over the next few years. These are significant gains for an economy that is still operating far below potential, remaining about 1.5 million jobs short of its pre-recession employment level.
A territorial tax system does have one potential disadvantage: it could strengthen US MNCs’ existing incentives to shift their profits to lower-tax jurisdictions. Competitive cuts in corporate tax rates, the spread of tax havens, and the rising importance of easily movable intangible capital have already made these incentives more powerful. Recent studies find growing segregation between where MNCs locate their real economic activities and where their profits are reported for tax purposes.
Income shifting and the resulting erosion of domestic tax bases pose serious challenges, and countries with territorial systems have adopted tough countermeasures to combat them. If the US moves to a territorial system, it should follow suit. A modern territorial system with adequate safeguards against income-shifting and base erosion is the right approach to taxing the foreign earnings of US MNCs.
POLITICO | July 22, 2013
In the quarter century since Congress last reformed the Tax Code, back in 1986, it seems Washington has worked overtime to create the most inefficient and ineffective globally anti-competitive tax system humankind could dream up.
It’s time to start over — time to start with a blank slate.
The 1986 reforms accomplished a great deal to simplify the Tax Code and promote economic growth by eliminating tax preferences and using the resulting funds to lower the top rate to 28 percent. Unfortunately, those deductions, exclusions and other preferences have returned over the years in the form of approximately $1.3 trillion worth of annual backdoor spending that now litters the Tax Code.
This hidden spending complicates tax filing, distorts economic decision making and slows economic growth. It also means that despite a top individual rate of 39.6 percent, deficits are still far too high. The current Tax Code is badly broken.
The conventional wisdom holds that real reform — reform that reduces or eliminates tax preferences to cut tax rates, simplify the Tax Code, promote economic growth and help to control the national debt — is impossible as long as powerful interests continue to promote the status quo.
But conventional wisdom was turned on its head recently when the two leaders of the Senate tax-writing committee called for starting tax reform with a “blank slate.”
The bold proposal from Chairman Max Baucus and ranking member Orrin Hatch begins by eliminating each and every tax preference. Starting from scratch, as Sens. Baucus and Hatch propose, provides the single best chance to accomplish fundamental tax reform, which could be one of the best ways to get the economy moving.
On the Fiscal Commission (known colloquially as Simpson-Bowles), our decision to take a similar approach — we called it the “zero plan” — was a turning point that truly broke the partisan logjam. At the time, we found eliminating all tax preferences would allow the top individual rate to be reduced to 23 percent and the top corporate rate to 26 percent, while still dedicating some of the revenue to reducing the deficit.
This was a true game changer that made it possible for us to put forward tax reform that accomplished the Republican goal of substantially reducing rates and the Democratic goal of raising new revenue.
Importantly, starting from scratch doesn’t mean that all tax preferences will be eliminated. Instead, it puts the onus on advocates of tax preferences to justify their existence and it requires policymakers to pay for those add-backs with higher rates. We believe most will not pass the cost-benefit analysis and will either be eliminated or phased out. Those deemed to serve important public policy purposes can be added back more efficiently and cost-effectively — for example, by using credits instead of deductions.
On the Fiscal Commission, we put forward an illustrative tax plan that added back a number of tax expenditures in a scaled-back, better targeted form, and achieved a top rate of 28 percent. Former Congressional Budget Office and OMB Director Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Pete Domenici have their own tax plan that includes similar rate reduction. Both plans would increase the progressivity of the Tax Code and, importantly, both would help raise new revenue to help pay down the deficit.
With $1.3 trillion of annual tax preferences, there are plenty of funds available to lower rates, restore worthwhile tax preferences and contribute to deficit reduction. And if we design the reform right, it also can do wonders for economic growth.
Of course, tax reform can’t do all the work on its own. Any successful effort to truly unlock the U.S. economy’s potential must bring our rapidly expanding national debt under control, which means slowing the growth of our unsustainable entitlement programs to match revenues from tax reform, along with other cuts in spending.
Combining tax reform with a broader package, one that also replaces the mindless sequester cuts with larger and smarter spending cuts and entitlement reforms, would represent a tremendous accomplishment.
Agreeing on such a package will not be easy. But the efforts and leadership of Sens. Baucus and Hatch, along with the hard work Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp has done in the House laying the foundation for reform, make it seem more possible than it has in some time.
Starting with a blank slate doesn’t allow us to avoid the hard choices. But it does make them just a little bit easier. It lets us build the Tax Code we want, rather than chip away from the Tax Code we have. If members of Congress and the administration rise to the challenge, this country’s future will be a whole lot brighter.
Brookings | July 8, 2013
Barring a miracle, budget bargains, either grand or petty, are not in the cards this year. The Congress would prefer to fight. It is happily at war with itself over immigration, student loan interest rates, the farm bill, energy policy and the like. The president has abandoned his charm offensive, and is chasing other butterflies.
With no other candidates in sight, it is not surprising that tax reform has re-emerged as the major economic issue in Washington.
In the Senate, Finance Chairman Baucus and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Hatch, announced that they would soon begin work on a tax bill. The Senators intend to start clean, with a bill stripped bare of all tax preferences. Senate Finance Committee members were warned that they would have to amend that bill with any preferences they wished to restore or add.
Ways & Means Chairman Camp is still working assiduously to build consensus in his Committee. The members are well prepared, and thoroughly briefed, but there is no bill yet. Camp’s start may well be quite like that of Baucus and Hatch.
The “fresh start” approach is a splendid idea, one that was suggested in the Simpson-Bowles report. Both Bowles and Simpson have come out strongly in support the Senate process. Other tax reform advocates have similarly blessed the announced process.
However, huge obstacles remain. No process, however inspired, can overcome the fact that tax reform is still an essential part of a budget bargain. Each party’s sharply conflicting budget visions are dependent on tax reform. The Democrats need tax reform to fund their “investments” and control their deficits. The Republicans need it for tax cuts to stimulate growth.
Those differences mean that a stand-alone tax reform bill is almost impossible. Tax reform is too big a part of the budget to move by itself. It must be a part of the budget bargain. A good start is welcome because, at best, tax reform is a difficult and time-consuming effort. But, it will remain inextricably linked to a budget agreement. If there is no budget agreement, there will be no tax reform.
Therefore, it is folly for tax reformers to get over-enthusiastic now. Sens. Baucus and Hatch, and Rep. Camp, ought to be commended for bravery, and encouraged. They have a couple of years of hard work ahead of them with a high risk of failure.
A budget bargain requires negotiation and compromise on macro-accounts. Thereafter, the details can be thrashed out by the various committees. Tax reform has the same negotiation requirements, but, in addition, each petty little micro-detail has to be worked out in advance of passage. The devil is said to lurk in the details, and tax reform is the epitome of detail.
Perhaps an even greater problem is timing. A budget agreement and tax reform need to march together. If a tax bill is perfected long before a budget agreement is made, it will be subjected to a furious attack from all the losers in the preference game. No bill, however cleverly constructed, can withstand the full fury of a strong lobby scorned.
Tax reform’s last lap around the track was in 1986. Then, legislative leaders of both parties were guilty of conspicuous cooperation in the quest for tax reform. They, and the president, perceived that the bill was good for the country and for both political parties. That attitude won’t appear again at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue until there is some budget agreement.
There is none now. Funding the government for FY ‘14 will be by Continuing Resolution(s). The debt ceiling, which has to be settled this fall, could be a major crisis and another train wreck for the economy. House Republicans, who lost that debate in 2011, still see value in the debt ceiling even though the President has declared it “non-negotiable.” Even budget “hawks” are beginning to despair that this is not the year for budget compromise.
So let the Finance and Ways and Means Committees begin the tax reform process with the good wishes of tax reform advocates. Just don’t expect the exercise to be crowned with success until Congress is ready to deal with the larger budget issue.
The Government We Deserve | July 3, 2013
No one quite knows what exactly Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT) mean when they say they will rely upon a “blank slate” as the starting point for tax reform discussions. But done carefully and with political artistry, taking advantage of their unique power, Baucus and Hatch could revolutionize how members of Congress negotiate the future of taxes.
But it’s all in the practice, not the theory. Done right, the strategy could reenergize the tax reform debate. Done wrong, it will be just another dead-end.
The idea of reforming the tax system from a “zero base” or building up from a blank slate is hardly new. And lawmakers always talk about everything being on the table. The challenge is in making it happen.
Baucus and Hatch must accomplish two goals. First, they must shift the burden of proof from those who favor reform to those who would retain the status quo. Second, they must force members to pay for their favored subsidy, denying them the opportunity to pretend it is free.
As a veteran of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, I always emphasize the crucial role of process. Sure, serendipity smiles or frowns unexpectedly on any endeavor, but the ’86 effort took off when Treasury, President Reagan, House Ways & Means Chair Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL), and Finance Committee chair Bob Packwood (R-OR) all put forward proposals that started with specific rate cuts and removal of many tax preferences.
Their plans were all somewhat different, but each changed the burden of proof. Lobbyists won many later battles, but now they were forced to explain why they needed to retain special preferences when others would not be so favored. Moreover, given a fixed revenue target, restored preferences had to be paid for. Lawmakers had to acknowledge that the price of adding back tax preferences was a higher tax rate.
Baucus, ideally with the support of Hatch, can put forward a “chairman’s mark” from which committee members can debate amendments. As both senators have suggested, that mark can be a relatively clean slate. Further, Baucus can require that amendments must not add to the deficit or change his revenue target, effectively requiring members to offer what are called “pay-fors.”
Normally, members debate items one at a time. Each adds a new subsidy without worrying about who pays for it—perhaps those currently too young to vote or the yet-unborn.
In dark times, politicians try to reduce the deficit by figuring out what tax increases or spending cuts will restore order to the budget. But identifying losers is immensely unpopular among voters, and politicians shy away from it. Worse, they blast those from the other party brave enough to provide details.
But if Baucus sets a revenue target at the beginning of this tax reform exercise, the dynamic shifts—from simply identifying winners and losers to explicit trade-offs. Winners and losers march together. With a blank slate or zero base, every restoration of a tax break requires higher rates (even an alternative tax), especially if there are few or no alternative preferences to sacrifice.
This process not only gives new life to a broad rewrite of the tax code but also makes it much easier to reform specific provisions. For instance, tax subsidies for homeownership, charity, and education can be much more effective and provide more bang per buck out of each dollar of federal subsidy. But politicians largely ignore such ideas because they create losers who scream loudly. Thus, the default for elected officials who fear negative advertising and loss of campaign contributions is to do nothing to improve these tax subsidies.
But when the burden of proof changes, a lobbyist can appear to be helping his masters simply by saving a subsidy, even if the net benefit is smaller than in the old law. After all, preserving a preference in some form is success relative to a zero baseline. Of course, as we learned in 1986, this argument grows stronger as the probability of tax reform grows. Can Baucus and Hatch change the burden of proof and force members to pay with higher rates for the subsidies they want to keep? They can certainly lead their committee and Congress in that direction, but only by specifying precisely a chairman’s mark that sets revenue and rates while slashing tax preferences.
If they do, Baucus and Hatch may force fellow senators to acknowledge that every subsidy must be paid for. And that, in turn, will open a window to design alternative tax subsidies that are fairer and more efficient. This sort of process revolution could remake policy in ways that extend well beyond tax reform.
The New York Times | June 28, 2013
Few goals in Washington have more bipartisan support, at least in theory, than cleaning up the tax code. Republicans and Democrats say they want a system that is simpler, fairer and more efficient. Put simply, they want a system with fewer special tax breaks and lower rates.
Yet one of the best ideas for advancing all of those goals – and also heading off catastrophic climate change — isn’t even on the table. I refer to a carbon tax, which would impose a price on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Most climate experts concur that dangerous climate change is occurring at a more rapid rate than expected. They also agree that the deterioration in the earth’s climate is primarily a result of carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption by humans. If you dispute the overwhelming scientific consensus about man-made climate change and the role of fossil fuel emissions, you should probably stop reading now. Evidence is unlikely to affect your opinions.
But if you accept this consensus, you should know that economists across the political spectrum agree that a carbon tax is the most effective way to discourage carbon consumption and lower the risks of catastrophic climate changes.
I am convinced by the environmental case for a carbon tax. But I want to make a broader argument: a carbon tax could be an engine for tax simplification, deficit reduction, less government regulation and even increased competitiveness.
To be sure, the environmental urgency alone is compelling. In May, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached nearly 400 parts per million. When concentrations were last that high – more than three million years ago — humans had not yet appeared, the world was warmer by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius, and sea levels were 80 feet above where they are today.
United Nations negotiators have set a limit of 450 parts per million to prevent costly and irreversible changes in the earth’s climate. At current emission trends, the world will cross this limit in a matter of decades.
The anecdotal evidence of climate change is everywhere: melting Arctic ice, new migration patterns for plants and animals and extreme weather events including record droughts, heat waves, epic floods and super storms. The frequency, intensity and costs of such events are increasing at an alarming rate. Climate scientists have moved from the view that such events are consistent with climate change to the view that climate change significantly increases the odds of their occurrence.
Economists have long contended that a carbon tax is the most effective and simplest way to reduce carbon emissions. Conservative supporters include Gregory Mankiw, a former economic adviser to President George W. Bush, and George P. Shultz, who was secretary of state under President Reagan. Economic centrists include Alan Blinder of Princeton and Robert Frank of Cornell University. Further to the left are the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich, former secretary of labor. James Hansen, NASA’s former top climate scientist, is also a vocal champion of carbon taxes. So is former Vice President Al Gore, who has advocated carbon taxes for the last 35 years as the policy most likely to be successful in combating carbon emissions.
The beauty of a carbon tax is its market-based simplicity. Economists since Adam Smith have insisted that prices are by far the most efficient way to guide the decisions of producers and consumers. Carbon emissions have an “unpriced” societal cost in terms of their deleterious effects on the earth’s climate. A tax on carbon would reflect these costs and send a powerful price signal that would discourage carbon emissions.
Producers and consumers would adjust their behavior in response to this signal in ways that are most efficient for them. And these efficient micro decisions would support efficient societal outcomes.
There’s much debate about what the proper “social cost of carbon” might be, but there is no debate that carbon emissions are seriously underpriced. Any tax on carbon would be an important step in the right direction, and it could be gradually increased to give consumers and producers time to modify their decisions.
Without a tax, the government has to rely on second-best regulations to limit carbon emissions. Facing Congressional inaction and staunch opposition to a carbon tax, this week President Obama proposed regulations on carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants using his executive authority under the Clean Air Act.
A carbon tax is also a cheaper and often more efficient way to reduce carbon emissions than subsidies for alternative fuels. Generous subsidies for biofuels have cost billions of dollars; by reducing the price of gasoline they may have perversely increased rather than decreased carbon emissions.
Other subsidies, like the production tax credit, have been successful at ramping up research, development and deployment of alternative energy technologies in recent years. Such subsidies would be even more effective in combination with a carbon tax that would make fossil fuels less price-competitive and would stimulate research on renewable and energy-saving technologies.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that even a modest carbon tax could reduce both greenhouse emissions and the federal budget deficit. A tax of $20 per ton of carbon dioxide, which would translate to about 15 cents per gallon of gasoline, would reduce emissions by 8 percent and generate up to $1.2 trillion in tax revenues over 10 years.
None of this is controversial to economists. As Professor Mankiw remarked a few years ago, the basic argument for a carbon tax “is so straightforward as to be obvious.”
Politically, of course, it’s anything but obvious. Republicans and Democrats fear that a carbon tax would antagonize voters by raising the prices of products with fossil fuel content for everyone who uses them. Republicans worry that a carbon tax would be a source of government revenue to feed “big government spending.” Democrats worry that a carbon tax would be regressive.
Both objections are easy to address. The revenues from a carbon tax do not have to be used for more government spending; the tax’s burden on low-income families can be offset by targeted income support measures, like those used in other countries to offset the regressive effects of value-added taxes.
Adele Morris at the Brookings Institution estimates that diverting just 15 percent of the revenues from a $16-per-ton carbon tax would provide enough money to keep low-income households whole. The remaining money could be used to finance a substantial reduction in corporate tax rates and reduce deficits by $815 billion over 20 years. Government spending would not increase.
Put another way, a carbon tax can be a central pillar of tax reform and sound fiscal policy. If a carbon tax were used in part to replace other forms of taxation, it would be a major force for tax simplification. It may seem like a “liberal” initiative, because its core purpose is to slow climate change. But a carbon tax also bears a strong resemblance to the kind of flat, broad-based tax on consumption favored by many conservatives.
Opponents of a carbon tax, and of climate-change legislation in general, often assert that it would put the United States at a competitive disadvantage. They usually point to China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (the United States is in second place and not far behind).
The competitiveness objection to a carbon tax is crumbling fast, however. This year, China announced plans for a carbon tax. Many European countries with which the United States competes, including Germany, an export powerhouse, already have carbon taxes in addition to very high gasoline taxes.
In May, the World Bank reported that countries that either have carbon taxes or are scheduled to impose them account for 21 percent of global greenhouse emissions. If you add China, Brazil and other countries that are actively considering carbon taxes, the share goes up to more than 50 percent.
In his speech, President Obama said the United States must lead international efforts to combat climate change, calling for a global free trade in environmental goods and services and renewed negotiations on a global agreement to reduce carbon. The United States could breathe new life into these negotiations by announcing its commitment to a carbon tax harmonized with those of other nations.
A well-designed carbon tax is probably the single best tool for fighting catastrophic climate change and safeguarding the earth for future generations. It can also be a key component of tax reform and deficit reduction, both of which would enhance the nation’s competitiveness. Much of the world is already heading for a carbon tax: the United States should get out in front and lead the way. As Mr. Gore recently blogged, “A tax on carbon is an idea whose time has come.”
Project Syndicate | June 26, 2013
How to tax the income of multinational corporations (MNCs) was an unlikely headline topic at the recent G-8 summit in Ireland. It will be a key agenda item at the upcoming G-20 summit in Russia as well. Given these companies’ significance to national and global economic performance, world leaders’ focus on the arcane intricacies of corporate taxation is easy to understand – perhaps nowhere more so than in the United States.
As the US embarks on the difficult path of corporate tax reform, it should heed the United Kingdom’s example. Even as it champions multilateral cooperation to ensure that MNCs pay their “fair” share, the British government has slashed its corporate rate, exempted the active foreign income of British MNCs from the national corporate tax, and enacted a “patent box” that stipulates a 10% tax rate on qualified patent income.
As a result of years of cuts in corporate tax rates by other countries, the US now has the highest rate among the advanced economies. Reducing the top US federal rate, currently at 35%, to a more competitive level – the OECD average is around 25% – would encourage investment and job creation in the US by both domestic and foreign MNCs.
Paying for a rate cut by eliminating various corporate credits and deductions would simplify the code and trim the cost of compliance. It would also enhance efficiency by curbing tax-based distortions in companies’ investment decisions (what and where) and their choices concerning how to finance investments and which organizational forms to adopt. The Obama administration and Congressional leaders from both parties agree that a cut in the corporate tax rate should be revenue-neutral.
Other advanced industrial countries have paid for corporate rate reductions partly by restricting depreciation and other deductions. Despite lower tax rates, corporate tax revenues have not declined in these countries and represent a larger share of GDP than they do in the US.
In addition to reducing its corporate tax rate, the US needs to reform the way it taxes its MNCs’ foreign earnings. All other G-8 countries (and most OECD countries) boost their MNCs’ competitiveness by taxing only their domestic income, exempting most of their foreign earnings from domestic taxation (an approach known as a territorial system). The US, by contrast, taxes its MNCs’ worldwide income, with taxes paid elsewhere credited against their US tax liability to avoid double taxation.
The worldwide system puts US-based MNCs at a competitive disadvantage. They must pay the high US corporate rate on profits earned by their affiliates in low-tax foreign locations, while foreign MNCs headquartered in territorial systems pay only the local tax rate on such profits.
Current US law blunts this disadvantage by allowing US companies to defer paying US tax on profits earned abroad by foreign affiliates until they are repatriated to their US owners. As a consequence of both the high US tax rate and deferral, US-based MNCs have a strong incentive to keep their foreign earnings abroad. Indeed, their non-US affiliates currently hold an estimated $2 trillion in accumulated foreign earnings.
These earnings are “locked out” and unavailable to finance investment and job creation in the US, without incurring significant additional US taxes. Moreover, US companies incur efficiency costs from the suboptimal use of deferred earnings and higher levels of debt, as well as the burden of maintaining worldwide tax strategies. And these costs, estimated at 1-5% of deferred earnings, have been rising rapidly in recent years, in line with the growing share of foreign markets in US-based MNCs’ revenues.
A territorial system would address the competitiveness disadvantages, the “lock-out” effect, and the inefficiencies of the US’s worldwide approach. But it would not reduce incentives for US corporations to shift their reported profits to low-tax jurisdictions; on the contrary, such incentives would be even stronger in a pure territorial system. Given increasing globalization of business activity; the rising importance of intangible capital that is difficult to price and easy to move (for example, patents and brands); competitive cuts in national corporate tax rates; and the spread of tax havens, income shifting and the resulting tax-base erosion have become a major policy concern throughout the OECD.
In response, other developed economies have used a variety of techniques to create “hybrid” territorial systems aimed at countering tax-base erosion. Such systems include transfer-pricing rules based on OECD guidelines (used by the US as well), limits on interest deductibility, and domestic taxation of some kinds of income earned in low-tax locations where companies report large earnings but carry out little real economic activity.
As part of comprehensive corporate tax reform that includes a revenue-neutral rate cut, the US Congress is currently considering a hybrid territorial reform and evaluating several measures to counter tax-base erosion and income shifting, including those used by other advanced countries. Republican Congressman David Camp, who is leading the legislative effort in the House of Representatives, has proposed an innovative alternative that rests on the “destination principle”: MNCs’ taxable earnings should be based largely on where their products are sold, rather than on where the companies are headquartered, where their production and financing occur, or where their profits are reported.
Camp’s proposal would significantly reduce incentives to move manufacturing abroad for tax reasons. By contrast, both America’s worldwide system and other countries’ hybrid territorial systems rely on an “origin or source principle” that bases taxation largely on where input costs and production activities are located.
The US last reformed its business tax code in 1986, when it had one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world and the competitive dynamics of the global economy were very different. It is time for another comprehensive corporate tax reform, one that reduces the tax rate, broadens the tax base, and adopts a hybrid territorial approach with effective base-erosion safeguards.
The Hill | May 9, 2013
Over the last few days, politically driven critics have called on the president to abandon his support for changing the way the government indexes provisions in the budget to inflation by switching to “chained CPI.” Looking beyond politics, we’re here to say that these critics’ arguments are wrong on their merits.
As economists from opposite ends of the political spectrum, we would strongly urge the president and leaders in Congress to continue to support moving to chained CPI, which represents the most accurate available measure of inflation and cost-of-living increases. Switching to this more accurate measure of inflation represents the right technical, fiscal and retirement policy — and policymakers should not delay any further in making this improvement.
From a technical sense, the current CPI — or consumer price index — that is used to index many parts of the budget and tax code is widely understood to overstate inflation. This is because it fails to account for so-called “substitution bias,” in which consumers reallocate their purchases depending on the relative prices of similar goods. For example, if the price of apples goes up, consumers will buy more oranges. However, this behavior is not accounted for in standard CPI measurements.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which calculates the CPI, is very aware of this shortcoming, which is why it has developed and refined the chained CPI for more than a decade. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office states that the chained CPI “provides an unbiased estimate of changes in the cost of living from one month to the next.”
Some argue that using the chained CPI to index Social Security benefits is inappropriate because it does not reflect inflation for retirees, which critics suggest is higher than it is for working-age adults because of the elderly’s higher rate of spending on healthcare. However, the CBO has said that based on the available research, it is unclear whether the cost of living actually grows at a faster rate for the elderly than for younger people, and that the CPI-E —“E” for “experimental” — which was intended to provide a more accurate measure of inflation for seniors, has several methodological flaws that overstate inflation, including underestimating the rate of improvement in healthcare.
Beyond the technical case for the chained CPI, there is a strong fiscal case. Because current measures currently overstate inflation by about 0.25 percent per year, moving to a more accurate measure would result in real deficit reduction. Measuring inflation more accurately would generate savings from throughout government: about $390 billion in the first decade alone. Roughly one-third of those savings would come from slower growth in Social Security benefits, another third from revenue increases (as certain tax provisions such as the cutoff points of income tax brackets are indexed to inflation) and the remaining savings from a combination of other spending programs and lower interest payments on the debt. Given the very real need to begin to put our debt on a sustainable path, this would be a small but important contribution. The savings would be gradual, with only a small amount in the near term, thus protecting our fragile recovery from immediate austerity.
Finally, switching to chained CPI is the right retirement policy — or rather, a small piece of it. The Social Security program is on a path to exhaust its trust fund. Current projections indicate that this will occur in 2033, threatening cuts for all beneficiaries, including the very rich and the very poor, the very young and the very old, veterans, disabled workers and others. Improving the way we measure inflation won’t prevent the program’s looming insolvency, but it will eliminate a full fifth of the long-term funding gap.
To the extent that the overpayments under the current formula offset the shortcomings of our current retirement system for the lowest-income and most-elderly beneficiaries, a switch to chained CPI can and should be accompanied by targeted policy changes providing benefit enhancements designed to help the affected populations, rather than providing higher-than-justified inflation adjustments for all beneficiaries.
The federal government should not knowingly continue to measure inflation inaccurately, especially given the costs to the budget and to the Social Security program. Changes that cut Social Security benefits are a tough sell for Democrats, and changes that increase revenue are a tough sell for Republicans. But if they cannot even agree to a technical correction to those areas of the budget, how will they be able to make the hard choices to control our debt and reform our government over the long term?
The Hill | April 30, 2013
In his recent blog entry on chained CPI (Chained CPI: Unfair and inaccurate, April 26th), AARP President Robert Romasco highlights his groups opposition to the change, charging that it would be “Unfair and Inaaccurate.” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
A coalition of strange bedfellows, including Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and Moveon.org, have announced their opposition to this policy, even as many responsible policymakers from both sides of the aisle and at the highest levels of government continue to support it – notably, the president and the Speaker of the House.
It is no surprise that groups from the left and right have mobilized to defend the status quo in order to avoid the tough choices that must accompany any responsible deficit reduction plan. Yet, the resistance to a reform as simple and obvious as using the most accurate measure of inflation for price-indexed provisions in the budget is both astounding and disappointing.
Economists from the left, right, and center are in broad agreement that chained CPI more accurately reflects cost-of-living increases by accounting for the small-sample and substitution biases in the current inflation measure. This view is shared by experts at the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office as well as the experts at Bureau of Labor Statistics who are responsible for measuring inflation. Adopting the chained CPI doesn’t represent a policy change, but rather would best reflect the current intent of the law to index various provisions to inflation.
And while some argue that seniors face faster cost-growth than other populations, there is little evidence of a significant difference when one accounts for the fact that seniors are more likely to own their own homes mortgage free, have different shopping habits than younger populations, are able to take advantage of senior discounts, and receive constantly improving health treatments. Indeed, according to the Congressional Budget Office, “it is unclear, however, whether the cost of living actually grows at a faster rate for the elderly than for younger people.”
Moreover, offering seniors a preferential inflation measure raises more fairness concerns than it answers. If seniors receive a higher inflation measure, should non-seniors on the Social Security program receive a lower measure? Geographic inflation disparities are far larger than alleged age disparities (inflation has averaged 2.7 percent in New York and 1.8 percent in Detroit over the last decade); why protect seniors and not New Yorkers? What about other government programs and tax provisions? Should each be indexed to costs within its population? Or only those backed by powerful interest groups?
Indeed, it would be highly unfair to politicize inflation indexing or to exempt any government program or tax provision from the most accurate available measure of inflation.
More unfair would be ignoring our fiscal and retirement challenges and leaving the job to a future politicians. According to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the President’s chained CPI proposal would result in benefit levels 1 to 2 percentage points lower than under current law – and it accompanies the switch with benefit enhancements for the old that actually reduce poverty among that group. By comparison, there is a 25 percent cut scheduled to occur under current law when the trust funds dry up in 2033. The greatest unfairness would be allowing this across-the-board benefit cut to hit every beneficiary regardless of age or income – when this cut could be easily avoided through a balanced package of revenue and benefit adjustments.
Mr. Romasco is right, we need a national conversation on improving retirement security, including how to make Social Security sustainably solvent in order to avoid abrupt benefit cuts and ensure the system is better protecting those who rely on it. Ideally, we’d have this conversation now. However, the overheated reaction to a technical correction in cost of living adjustments suggests that the political system may not be ready to tackle comprehensive Social Security reform. Continuing to index benefits improperly while we wait for this reform to materialize would be a costly mistake that will only make future Social Security changes more painful.