You can’t escape talk of tax reform. It remains the one demand that keeps the business community firmly engaged with President Trump. And in a crowded legislative calendar, it’s the one must-pass item that would constitute a really new policy initiative.
But we can’t afford the tax reform many of us want, and many of us don’t accept the importance of the tax reform we need.
The “reform” we can’t afford is across-the-board tax cuts. The federal government is running unacceptably large deficits, and those are projected to increase over the next decade. Cuts would make the problem worse.
What we actually need is authentic, wholesale reform of our business tax environment. The U.S. statutory (read: headline) corporate tax rate is a genuine outlier when benchmarked against our world peers. But the system is so porous that the effective tax rates paid by U.S. firms (read: their real economic tax burdens) often is much lower than world norms, and in any event, varies wildly from company to company. These are symptoms of a sick system.
I have a better idea, which I call the Dual Business Enterprise Income Tax, or Dual BEIT — where “BEIT” is pronounced “bite,” as in a tax bite.
The Dual BEIT offers businesses a lower tax rate and pays for those lower company taxes in part by shifting some of the total business tax burden from the firms themselves to investors because they are less mobile. (They can’t just pick up and move to Ireland.) And it addresses the international tax gaming through which many of our largest companies avoid taxes all over the world.
The Dual BEIT is growth-enhancing: company rates go down, and the tax applies neutrally to all business activity. That is, it applies to all businesses in exactly the same way, regardless of the form of organization chosen (corporate or partnerships, limited liability companies or “S” corporations), their funding (debt or equity), the type of investments they make and the percentage of their business that is international (U.S. firms are the grandmasters of the “stateless income” tax planning game).
As for the details, forgive me, this gets a little wonky.
The Dual BEIT’s key move is to identify an economy-wide average expected rate of return on ordinary business investments. Firms are excused from paying tax on this expected return, while investors are required to pay tax on it annually.
Instead of claiming deductions for interest payments to lenders, companies receive something better: a new Cost of Capital Allowance annual write-off equal to that economy-wide expected return, applied to all of their business investments, whether funded by issuing bonds or selling stock.
For example, if a firm wants to buy a new machine costing $1,000, and the COCA rate is 6%, the firm will deduct $60 in the first year no matter how much interest it owes. The combination of the firm’s future depreciation deductions (write-offs for wear and tear) on that machine plus the annual COCA deduction on the firm’s unrecovered investment is economically equivalent to writing off the cost of the machine in the year it’s purchased.
The Dual BEIT then applies a company tax rate of 25% to this narrower tax base. It addresses stateless income international tax gaming by requiring firms to consolidate their international and domestic results for tax purposes, just as they do already for financial accounting purposes.
Individual investors, meanwhile, pay tax based on the same expected return on business investment — 6% in the above example.
So an individual with $1,000 in stocks would be deemed to earn $60 in income from that investment (6% x $1,000). He would pay tax on the $60 at the flat 25% rate (with allowances if he’s a low-income investor or if his investment never actually yields the expected return) — for a total $15 tax bill.
And that would be it for tax obligations from an individual’s investment. There would be no separate capital gains tax.
This may sound like a giveaway compared to current law, but an unavoidable 25% tax, measured and collected annually, would raise more revenue from individuals than does the current tax system — where capital gains tax in particular can be deferred indefinitely. It’s also a progressive result, notwithstanding the flat rate, because the current ability to defer income indefinitely is a prerogative only of the most affluent.
The Dual BEIT system of course contains many details not outlined here, but overall it’s much simpler than the existing business tax rules and also much fairer. Business taxation needs a radical rethink. The Dual BEIT offers just that.
Edward Kleinbard is the Robert C. Packard Trustee chair in law at the USC Gould School of Law, the former chief of staff to the U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Taxation and author of “We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money.”