The Corner

Hobbling American Companies the Obama Way

Over at the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson makes a good case that Obama’s attempt to grab more of the foreign profits earned by American multinationals is bad policy dishonestly sold (no surprises there). Some key points:

Most countries don’t tax the foreign profits of their multinational firms at all. Take a Swiss multinational with operations in South Korea. It pays a 27.5 percent Korean corporate tax on its profits and can bring home the rest tax-free. By contrast, a U.S. firm in Korea pays the Korean tax and, if it returns the profits to the United States, faces the 35 percent U.S. corporate tax rate. American companies can defer the U.S. tax by keeping the profits abroad (naturally, many do), and when repatriated, companies get a credit for foreign taxes paid. In this case, they’d pay the difference between the Korean rate (27.5 percent) and the U.S. rate (35 percent). . . .

The estimated $210 billion revenue gain over 10 years — money already included in Obama’s budget — represents only six-tenths of 1 percent of the decade’s tax revenue of $32 trillion, as projected by the Congressional Budget Office. Worse, the CBO reckons that Obama’s endless deficits over the decade will total a gut-wrenching $9.3 trillion. . . .

Whether Obama’s proposals would create any jobs in the United States is an open question. In highly technical ways, Obama would increase the taxes on the foreign profits of U.S. multinationals by limiting the use of today’s deferral and foreign tax credit. Taxing overseas investment more heavily, the theory goes, would favor investment in the United States.

But many experts believe his proposals would actually destroy U.S. jobs. Being more heavily taxed, American multinational firms would have more trouble competing with European and Asian rivals. Some U.S. foreign operations might be sold to tax-advantaged foreign firms. Either way, supporting operations in the United States would suffer. “You lose some of those good management and professional jobs in places like Chicago and New York,” says Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute.

Including state taxes, America’s top corporate tax rate exceeds 39 percent; among wealthy nations, only Japan’s is higher (slightly). However, the effective U.S. tax rate is reduced by preferences — mostly domestic, not foreign — that also make the system complex and expensive. As Hufbauer suggests, Obama would have been better advised to cut the top rate and pay for it by simultaneously ending many preferences. That would lower compliance costs and involve fewer distortions. But this sort of proposal would have been harder to sell. Obama sacrificed substance for grandstanding.

Of course he did. Even more to the point, Obama (like most politicians on both sides of the aisle) is highly unlikely to do much that simplifies the tax code. To do that would, of course, give him, and the rest of them, much less to sell.

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