Closing outrageous inversion loophole right now would be good start

The US federal government still gets one-tenth of its revenue from corporate profits taxation

Does this mean President Barack Obama is wrong to describe companies engaging in inversion as “corporate deserters”?  Photograph: Reuters

Does this mean President Barack Obama is wrong to describe companies engaging in inversion as “corporate deserters”? Photograph: Reuters

Tue, Jul 29, 2014, 01:00

In recent decisions, the conservative majority on the US supreme court has made clear its view that corporations are people, with all the attendant rights. They are entitled to free speech, which in their case means spending lots of money to bend the political process to their ends. They are entitled to religious beliefs, including those that mean denying benefits to their workers. Up next, the right to bear arms?

There is, however, one big difference between corporate persons and the likes of you and me: On current trends, we’re heading toward a world in which only the human people pay taxes.

We’re not quite there yet: the US federal government still gets one-tenth of its revenue from corporate profits taxation. But it used to get a lot more – a third of revenue came from profits taxes in the early 1950s, a quarter or more well into the 1960s. Part of the decline since then reflects a fall in the tax rate, but mainly it reflects ever more-aggressive corporate tax avoidance – avoidance that politicians have done little to prevent.

Which brings us to the tax-avoidance strategy du jour: “inversion.” This refers to a legal manoeuvre in which a company declares its US operations are owned by its foreign subsidiary, not the other way around, and uses this role reversal to shift reported profits out of American jurisdiction to some place with a lower tax rate.

The most important thing to understand about inversion is that it does not in any meaningful sense involve American business “moving overseas.” Consider the case of Walgreen, the giant drugstore chain that, according to multiple reports, is on the verge of making itself legally Swiss. If the plan goes through, nothing about the business will change; your local pharmacy won’t close and reopen in Zurich. It will be a purely paper transaction – but it will deprive the US government of several billion dollars in revenue that the taxpayer will have to make up one way or another. Does this mean President Barack Obama is wrong to describe companies engaging in inversion as “corporate deserters”?

Loss of revenue Not really

– they’re shirking their civic duty, and it doesn’t matter whether they literally move abroad or not. But apologists for inversion are talking nonsense. These businesses aren’t moving production or jobs overseas – they’re still earning profits right here in the US. All they’re doing is dodging taxes on those profits.

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