Nate Jensen recently published an op-ed of note, asking "Why Are Your State Tax Dollars Subsidizing Corporations?" Nate has studied tax and corporate decision making for some time, and recently published "Incentives to Pander: How Politicians Use Corporate Welfare for Political Gain", which is on my reading list. This is, of course, a favourite topic of mine. A few excerpts from the op-ed:
Politicians are using public policies, from renaming a city to offering billions of dollars in grants, infrastructure improvements and tax abatements, to take credit for companies’ location decisions. ...
In all likelihood, incentives are overpaying firms, leading to lost resources that could be used for other purposes. If the incentives don’t pay for themselves, they must be paid for by either higher taxes or decreases on government spending. Local school districts are vocal opponents of incentives; they see their tax base being given away in the name of economic development.
But in fact it is most likely the quality of the work force that will be the deciding factor for Amazon, not the billions in incentives. Proponents of incentives often claim that these subsidies pay for themselves, and voters often support these efforts, believing the promises of good jobs. But this is possible only if governments perfectly target the companies that require incentives and pay just enough, and not a penny more, to sway a company’s decision.
...Political pandering is behind this explosion. But there is also some of what Brink Lindsey of the Niskanen Center and the political scientist Steven Teles call the “captured economy.” In between these politicians and corporations are economic incentive consultants, tax professionals and lobbyists all providing ways for businesses to maximize their take, and getting a percentage of these incentives in return.
There is a role for government in economic development. State and local governments can help businesses without access to finance survive and expand, provide worker training that is valuable to residents and companies, and invest in traditional education from pre-K to college. There are certainly worthy investments that can be made. But $7 million for Carrier, $3 billion for Foxconn and billions for Amazon is just using the public coffers for political theater.Highly recommended reading in full for anyone interested in tax competition.
Delimatsis and Hoekman have posted National Tax Regulation, International Standards and the GATS: Argentina—Financial Services, of interest especially in light of ongoing discourse about what kinds of tax competition are approved versus harmful in OECD terms. Here is the abstract:
Can a WTO Member discriminate against foreign suppliers of services located in jurisdictions that refuse to share information with a government to permit it to determine if its nationals engage in tax evasion? Does it matter if the Member uses standards developed by an international body as the criterion for deciding whether to impose measures? In Argentina—Financial Services the WTO Appellate Body held that services from jurisdictions that share financial tax information may be different from services provided by jurisdictions that do not cooperate in supplying such information. It overruled a Panel finding that measures to increase taxes on financial transactions with non-cooperative jurisdictions were discriminatory. We argue that the AB reached the right conclusion but that an important opportunity was missed to clarify what WTO Members are permitted to do to enforce their domestic regulatory regimes, and how international standards could have a bearing on this question. By giving consideration to arguments that the likeness of services and service suppliers may be a function of prevailing domestic regulatory regimes, the AB increased the scope for confusion and future litigation.
Tagged as: scholarship tax policy WTO
Tsilly Dagan recently posted this new paper on the limitations of normative tax analysis that constrains itself to the state. Here is the abstract:
Inequality, as well as the scope of the duty of justice to reduce it, has always been a central concern of political justice. Income taxation has been seen as a key tool for redistribution and the state was the arena for discussions of justice. Globalization and the tax competition it fosters among states change the context for the discussion of distributive justice. Given the state’s fading coercive power in taxation and the decreasing power of its citizenry to co-author its collective will due to global competition, we can no longer assume that justice can be realized within the parameters of the state.
International tax policy in an effort to retain justice often opts for cooperation as a vehicle to support distributive justice. But cooperation among states is more than a way for them to promote their aims through bargaining. Rather, it is a way for states to regain legitimacy by sustaining their very ability to ensure the collective action of their citizens and to treat them with equal respect and concern. The traditional discussion in international taxation seems to endorse a statist position — implicitly assuming that when states bargain for a multilateral deal, justice is completely mediated by the agreement of the states.
In contrast, this Article argues that such a multilateral regime intended to provide the state with fundamental legitimacy requires independent justification. Contrary to the conventional statist position, I maintain that cooperating states have a duty to ensure that the constituents of all cooperating states are not treated unjustly because of the agreement. I argue that not only cosmopolitanism but political justice too requires that a justiciable cooperative regime must improve (or at least not worsen) the welfare of the least well-off citizens in all cooperating states. I explain that cooperation alone is no guarantee of improved welfare and that certain transfer payments between rich and poor countries might be required to ensure this.This is an important and provocative paper, highly recommended reading.
Tagged as: globalization governance institutions justice scholarship tax policy
In an interesting twist on contemporary debates about tax planning by multinational companies, Prof. Leandra Lederman recently posted a very interesting column about how one government seems to have benefited from some clever tax planning at the expense of its own national government, with the help of a multinational company that appears to have received nothing for its trouble.
This is the strange case of Volkswagen's tax structuring involving the Spanish provinces of Navarre and Catalonia. What is strange is that, in this particular instance, Volkswagen's structure appears to have created no tax benefit for itself, but resulted in the province of Navarre effectively transferring itself a large pot of revenue from the national coffers.
Prof. Lederman's post explains that Navarre is an "autonomous community", which, unlike Catalonia, independently administers the VAT, and therefore only issues VAT refunds when products are exported from Navarre to a buyer located outside of Spain. (Most of Spain's other provinces have a harmonized VAT system administered at the national level). If products are sold to a buyer outside of Navarre but still in Spain, such as Catalonia, Navarre does not issue a refund because there has been no export. But if the purchasing company in that other province then sells to a subsequent buyer outside of Spain, the Spanish Treasury issues a refund to the company and voilà, Navarre has transferred itself a windfall in the amount of tax it collected and Spain paid back.
Over a period of several years, Navarre reportedly collected approximately 1.5 billion Euros from the Spanish government using Volkswagen in this manner. By routing its export sales through an intermediary in Catalonia rather than directly from Navarre, Volkswagen acted as a conduit to route revenues from the state to the province. Given its own indifference to who, as between Navarre and Spain, refunds the VAT on its exports, using an intermediary in Catalonia appears like an act of pure generosity to the province of Navarre. Prof. Lederman goes through the case that brought this issue to attention and queries: what's in it for Volkswagen? She notes that nothing in the public record suggests that VW received anything in return—"it simply did Navarre a favor." That seems unlikely; certainly, as Lederman points out, Navarre would be capable of having made some other concessions. These would not necessarily be made public.
Absent concessions, is this a modern day Robin Hood story, with VW effectively taking from the state to give to the province? Navarre is not quite at the bottom of Spain's provinces economically (at least according to wikipedia) but neither is it near the top spot in terms of gross regional product (it is, however, near the top in terms of purchasing power parity, as well as in other factors such as employment rates). Should we cheer or disparage the tax trickery that resulted in an ongoing transfer of wealth from Spain to Navarre?
Also curious is why Spain wouldn't have anticipated this problem far in advance of this situation arising. It seems that the government proposes to resolve the issue by renegotiating the Convenio Económico Navarra-Estado (Navarra-State Economic Agreement), which governs the VAT administration among other matters. I am no VAT expert but it seems to me that having designed a destination based VAT system and having agreed to independent administration of that system by one or more of its provinces, the state might have immediately recognized that revenue transfers from itself to the non-harmonized province(s) would be likely unless there was some mechanism requiring the VAT-collecting province to be the VAT-refunding province in the case of ultimate exports.
Like Prof. Lederman, I would be curious to know whether this sort of situation has arisen in other contexts--do sub-national governments routinely look for ways to transfer state revenues to themselves using taxpayers as conduits? Should we liken the province's passively benefiting from a system not solely of its own making as acceptable tax planning or harmful tax competition? Likewise, should we view the taxpayer's willingness to facilitate the transfer (for apparently no reason but its good nature and general willingness to cooperate) as a victory or a failing in the taxpayer-state relationship?
Tagged as: exports tax competition tax culture tax policy VAT
Last fall I via twitter I shouted out two of my students who won the Tax Analysts Student Writing Competition, in the international category:
I posted about the first paper long ago but I inadvertently neglected to post the second. Correcting that oversight, here it is, available at Tax Analysts: A World Tax Court: The Solution to Tax Treaty Arbitration, by Jake Heyka. Here is the brief abstract by TA:Very proud that two of my students @LAWMcGill won this year: @montano_cabezas (2015) and @Heyka14 (2017) https://t.co/XjWV2A66Cj— Allison Christians (@taxpolblog) July 11, 2016
Jake Heyka examines tax treaty arbitration standards while demonstrating that as a matter of fundamental justice, arbitration should be revamped. He proposes the creation of a world tax court.Heyka begins by observing that "[t]he institution of international tax treaty arbitration (ITTA) is hotly debated in international business and tax law. While the process is helpful because it pressures governments to resolve contested tax decisions, opponents have called it 'secret and evil.'"
He then makes the provocative observation that "the use of ITTA ultimately frustrates the resolution of tax disputes and should be supplanted by a world tax court." In support of his proposal, Heyka lays out the history and critique of tax treaty arbitration (including by me) and concludes:
Standardizing ITTA will create some procedural certainty but does not guarantee consistent use of those procedures, allow the public to see whether the process is fair, or establish reliable precedent. As Lindencrona and Mattson suggested over 30 years ago, ITTA should be a stepping stone to what the world ultimately needs: a world tax court.
As radical as it may seem, the idea is not far-fetched. World courts exist in many commercial and noncommercial contexts, and those that deal with money rather than crime are followed by many countries and used quite often. Moreover, state authority is regularly ceded to resolve disputes between commercial parties in arbitration courts such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the London Court of International Arbitration, and many other arbitration institutes. A world tax court would merely serve as a place to resolve tax disputes in a similar manner while sustaining the public nature of tax law.While I am late to post it, Heyka's article remains timely as the inclusion of arbitration in the recently released MLI is sure to keep the issue front and center in international tax discourse. Congrats Jake, and sorry for the delay in posting your accomplishment.
My own view is that a switch to deductibility would increases pressure on capital importing countries to reduce their source-based taxes (a deduction does not fully offset the foreign tax, so it would make such taxes more costly to US firms as compared to fully creditable foreign taxes), and therefore transfer revenues from poor to rich countries. Deferral already places tremendous tax competition pressure on host countries, while ending it might enable some countries (to which US capital is a major source of inbound investment) to increase their source-based taxation (as explained in this paper). Therefore I was happy to see this FP&S paper give additional support to the beleaguered tax credit while still recognizing that there is such a thing as giving too much credit.
I was also intrigued to see FP&S begin their paper by picking up Reuven Avi-Yonah's premise that taxation on the basis of residence and source is customary international law. That is not only a relatively unusual argument to find in a US-authorized tax paper, but it is a potentially controversial perspective, which I am exploring in a paper of my own (making the international law case against citizenship based taxation). So, thank you Fleming, Peroni and Shay, for the additional citation support for my arguments.
It is also worth noting that FP&S include in this paper a defense of the corporate income tax in the form of footnote 200, which spans more than a page in tiny but useful print. It summarizes the main points regarding why corporate tax is necessary as a backstop to individual income taxation, citing to the main arguments for and against, thus serving as a valuable micro treatise on the subject.
Finally, I note that FP&S only give the FTC two cheers instead of three because they feel that it conflicts with the principle of ability to pay, an argument I have not seen before and that gives me pause. Their argument is that foreign taxes are a cost to individuals attendant to investing abroad, and that crediting these taxes is too generous from the perspective of fairness, that a deduction would sufficiently account for the cost in terms of measuring ability to pay. I can understand that argument where the FTC is itself too generous, allowing cross-crediting and not restricting its application to double taxation. But I do not understand that argument applied to an FTC that restricts itself to a dollar for dollar credit of actual taxes paid, which I believe is the argument being advanced here. That's something to think about a little more.
In any event, abstract below and paper at the link above. Well worth a read.
Reform of the U.S. international income taxation system has been a hotly debated topic for many years. The principal competing alternatives are a territorial or exemption system and a worldwide system. For reasons summarized in this Article, we favor worldwide taxation if it is real worldwide taxation; that is, a nondeferred U.S. tax is imposed on all foreign income of U.S. residents at the time the income is earned. However, this approach is not acceptable unless the resulting double taxation is alleviated. The longstanding U.S. approach for handling the international double taxation problem is a foreign tax credit limited to the U.S. levy on the taxpayer’s foreign income. Indeed, the foreign tax credit is an essential element of the case for worldwide taxation. Moreover, territorial systems often apply worldwide taxation with a foreign tax credit to all income of resident individuals as well as the passive income and tax haven income of resident corporations. Thus, the foreign tax credit also is an important feature of many territorial systems. The foreign tax credit has been subjected to sharp criticisms though, and Professor Daniel Shaviro has recently proposed replacing the credit with a combination of a deduction for foreign taxes and a reduced U.S. tax rate on foreign income.
In this Article, we respond to the criticisms and argue that the foreign tax credit is a robust and effective device. Furthermore, we respectfully explain why Professor Shaviro’s proposal is not an adequate substitute. We also explore an overlooked aspect of the foreign tax credit—its role as an allocator of the international tax base between residence and source countries—and we explain the credit’s effectiveness in carrying out this role. Nevertheless, we point out that the credit merits only two cheers because it goes beyond the requirements of the ability-to-pay principle that underlies use of an income base for imposing tax (instead of a consumption base). Ultimately, the credit is the preferred approach for mitigating international double taxation of income.
In September, Donald Trump started calling for the US to tax imports from Mexico and China etc, on various theories having to do with his vision of what fair trade policy involving the United States would require. Democratic lawmaker Bill Pascrell appears to have seized the moment to re-introduce a bill that has failed multiple times in the U.S. Congress over the years, namely, the so-called Border Tax Equity Act. The idea of this act is simple: tax US consumers on imports and give the money to US companies that export things. If you find it amazing that anyone anywhere could support a tax and redistribute scheme like this, blame it on the pitch: Pascrell (and others) laud this as an answer to what they have characterized as a discriminatory practice, namely the exemption of exported products from value added taxes (VAT) by the 160+ countries that have federal consumption taxes. The argument is that "[t]he disparate treatment of border taxes is arbitrary, inequitable, causes economic distortions based only on the type of tax system used by a country, and is a primary obstacle to more balanced trade relations between the United States and its major trading partners."
This argument is specious and I don't expect the bill to pass but this issue is one that just does not seem like it will go away, I think because it is too easy to pitch the VAT border tax adjustment as "unfair." I had an exchange with trade expert Simon Lester almost ten years ago on this very subject, and re-reading my response today, it seems to cover the bases so I thought I would re-post it. You can see his original post here including a discussion in the comments between myself, Simon, and Sungjoon Cho on the matter. Sungjoon helpfully linked to a GATT working party report from 1970 but his original link is dead, however you can find that report here. Here is what I said (highlights added):
The great fallacy here is that the foreign exporter to the U.S. is somehow subject to no tax while the U.S. exporter is subject to two taxes. This is simply not the case. Other countries, especially our biggest trading partners (e.g. Canada) have both a federal corporate income tax and a federal consumption tax, while the U.S. has only a federal corporate tax. You cannot honestly assess the impact of the VAT in the context of only one country’s corporate income tax, and supporting this legislation this way is dishonest. The Textileworld site you reference conveniently ignores foreign corporate taxes in its analysis—I will leave you to decide for yourself why they might do that.Further...
...I will give a drastically oversimplified example. Assume a U.S. person manufactures a product in the U.S. which it will sell in Canada. The company’s profit on the sale is subject to federal income tax in the U.S., plus VAT in Canada (there called a general sales tax). Let us assume a Canadian company makes a similar product. With the same profit margin as the U.S. company on that product, the big issue here is the different rates of federal corporate taxes each company pays to its home country, because both pay an equal amount of VAT tax in that market. What the export credit in the U.S. would do is lower the U.S . company’s federal income tax burden relative to the Canadian one.
Now flip the scenario, the U.S. manufactures and sells a product in the U.S., where there is no VAT, and the Canadian company manufactures a product in Canada to sell in the U.S. Now each company again will pay its income tax to its home country but what happens to the VAT? Well there is no U.S. federal sales tax, and Canada’s VAT only applies to sales in that market, so the VAT is not imposed on the Canadian product coming in to the U.S.—it is exempt from their VAT. Again, in the U.S. market, there is no price distortion other than the difference in corporate income tax burdens—neither product is subject to VAT. If the U.S. imposes a border tax, I think you might now see that as distortionary (to the extent you believe that a tariff is distortionary in any event). Now you might say yeah, but many states have state sales taxes, wouldn't that equalize the incoming product, exempted from sales (VAT) tax in its foreign country? The answer is, of course, yes. But you don’t see very many people complaining if New York does not impose its sales tax on a product being shipped out of New York for sale in Canada—that is a (much-ignored) direct corollary to the VAT exemption.
I could go on but this argument has been made many times before. I appreciate that tax is complex and there are many alternative taxes and scenarios in which they apply differently, so that it is easy to be swayed by something that “seem unfair.” The bottom line is that people will continue to compare VAT to income taxes when it suits their purposes (i.e., supports protectionist policies like the border tax), and not when it doesn’t (i.e, when they want to pressure a government to lower its corporate tax rate to align with other nations’ corporate tax rate). But don’t be fooled by someone who tries to get you to look at one piece of a complex puzzle and guess what the image is.
[I]f you seek a level playing field, border taxes and rebates do not achieve that, and in fact, I doubt anyone could ever be confident about how to go about getting it via tax breaks for some and tax penalties for others (I have some ideas about where I would start, but I'll restrain myself). A border tax/rebate does not operate like an inverse VAT or offset an extra cost imposed by a VAT. A border tax is a tariff and a rebate is a subsidy, plain and simple, and I would expect many of our trading partners to oppose it if enacted.Today, I am less convinced that the income tax is worth saving and more open to a federal VAT, but that's a discussion for another day. To the above I would only add that in 2009 the US Congressional Research Service undertook a study called International Competitiveness: An Economic Analysis of VAT Border Tax Adjustments, well worth reading--the authors were Maxim Shvedov (now tax policy expert at AARP) and Donald Marples, whose more recent work on inversions with Jane Gravelle is also of interest. Their conclusion:
Incidentally, abolishing all income taxes might solve the problem of the income tax competition, but then you have a much different problem. By some estimates, if the U.S. were to abolish the income tax entirely in favor of a sales tax, the rate could be as high as 50%. More likely scenario: we keep the income tax just like it is and ADD a 10-20% federal VAT. This would get rid of the erroneous "VAT as distortion" complaint but I personally would rather keep the debate and take a pass on the VAT.
Economists have long recognized that border tax adjustments have no effect on a nation's competitiveness. Border tax adjustments have been shown to mitigate the double taxation of cross-border transactions and to provide a level playing field for domestic and foreign goods and services. Hence, in the absence of changes to the underlying macroeconomic variables affecting capital flows (for example, interest rates), any changes in the product prices of traded goods and services brought about by border tax adjustments would be immediately offset by exchange-rate adjustments. This is not to say, however, that a nation's tax structure cannot influence patterns of trade or the composition of trade.In summary: No, taxing at the border for the reasons given does not introduce "equity." It introduces WTO-prohibited tariffs and export subsidies. One could imagine that if the tariffs so raised were used to fund public goods, the possibility for an equitable outcome could be increased. But taking the money out of the pockets of US consumers and putting it in the pocket of US exporters in no way fulfills the stated policy goal.
Tagged as: fairness politics tax policy VAT
I posted previously on the new US Model, which was released in February of this year; I've now posted my article, co-written with McGill PhD student Alex Ezenagu, on the "kill switch" provisions in the new model. These provisions are found in the new articles and definitions involving special tax regimes and subsequent law changes, which would allow countries to switch on and off specified treaty benefits if their treaty partners get too aggressive in the ongoing race to the bottom on tax.
Here is the abstract:
The new US model income tax treaty contains an unusual addition: mechanisms for the parties to unilaterally override the negotiated treaty rates in specified circumstances. Previewed last year in proposed form—a first for Treasury—these new mechanisms work as kill-switches, partially terminating the treaty as to one or both treaty partners. The idea is to forestall a more problematic outcome, such as an enduring breach of one of the parties’ expectations, or the opposite, a complete termination of all the treaty terms in the face of such a breach. Yet embedding a kill-switch in a treaty creates distinct legal, procedural, and political pressures in the tax-treaty relationship that implicate treaty negotiation, ratification, interpretation, and dispute resolution. Kill-switches also communicate a defensive tenor in the tax treaty relationships among many countries. This Article analyzes the new kill-switch provisions and concludes that their introduction in the U.S. Model reflects the steady deterioration of tax treaties from essentially diplomatic documents premised on the good faith of the parties to detailed contracts drafted in anticipation of the opposite.It has long been assumed that tax treaties are uncontroversially technical agreements that no one outside of tax circles cares about or pays attention to--including, it seems, all too many lawmakers tasked with adopting these agreements into law. But with the US Treasury and the EU competition commissioner trading barbs over the fence about what seems right or fair when it comes to global tax competition and coordination, this assumption might be changing. The consensus built up over decades by OECD nations is under stress as the pressure for coherence in the international tax realm increases. Treasury released these provisions in draft from last fall, expressly in order to influence the OECD's work on BEPS. Now that the provisions are in the model, it remains to be seen how they will play out as BEPS, currently at a mid-cycle of norm making, moves from the articulation of principles to the implementation phase. This article doesn't provide answers or predictions about the future but it examines one aspect of the ongoing contestation and tries to situate it in historical and contemporary terms.
Tagged as: institutions international law offshore scholarship tax policy treaties US
Tax Coop and the World Bank are hosting a conference on tax competition and cooperation to be held in Washington DC on May 23-24. As last year, I've constructed the debate, which this year will be livestreamed on May 23 at 16:15 EST. I'll post the link when I have that information. At last year's conference, Dan Mitchell (Cato) and Richard Murphy (TJN) put corporate taxation on trial, debating the continuing viability of this tax in the face of technological innovation and economic globalization. This year's debaters are Alison Holder of ActionAid and Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
- First, be it resolved that: tax competition harms developing countries by reducing their capability to raise fiscal revenue to finance physical and social infrastructure needed for economic growth and social inclusion.
- Second, be it resolved that: tax competition increases developing countries’ reliance on foreign aid, making them more vulnerable to aid volatility.
- Third, be it resolved that: tax competition aggravates existing income disparities between developed and developing countries.