TAX, SOCIETY & CULTURE

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Should Corporate Tax Returns be Public?

Published Mar 05, 2015 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Last year, I participated in a symposium at NYU on the topic of tax and corporate social responsibility, on a panel with the above title. The NYU Journal of Law and Business has published the symposium issue, including a transcript of the discussions. You can view the entire symposium issue here,. Below I excerpt from my contribution but the entire exchange is worth a read.

... I think the story Josh is telling is that using transparency as a means to generate the political will for corporate tax reform poses some risk, real risk, to the tax system administration. I think we'll have some discussion about how genuine that risk is and how it should be measured against other risks, like firm competitiveness and proprietary information and so on. But I'll leave that discussion aside for now to focus on the first part of the proposition, and that is that what we're trying to do with corporate tax transparency is generate the political will for reform. 
Now I should preface this by saying that I am by nature and profession a curious type of person, and I would love nothing more than to be able to pore over the 57,000 pages of some corporation's tax return ... I think if you've read some of my prior work on the subject, you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear me say let's raise the curtain and have a look. Let's call it an issue of accountability and governance, and let's keep lawmakers on their toes by letting folks at this data that lawmakers are so jealously gardening for their own reasons. We humans don't seem to have too much privacy from the government, so let's us get to the business of crowdsourcing, the monitoring of the artificial people among us. 
But I keep coming back to the problem of what are we trying to solve here. If the goal is to generate political will for change, then I'm actually not so optimistic that corporate tax return disclosures is going to get us there. Instead I think it will lead us to continue having interesting discussions about whether or not we should be taxing corporations at all, or the variation that we had earlier today, which is how to draw the line between avoidance and evasion. 
That's to say we've already been taught, even without corporate tax disclosure, to expect that most American companies, especially those with a global footprint, aren't paying much tax anywhere. The jig is already up. This is not a secret. We're not rioting in the streets about it for the most part. Sure, corporate tax disclosure will confirm what we already know, but I'm not sure if getting all the gory details is going to push the political picture that much further. Maybe it will, because we clearly have an "Overton Window" in which really taxing American corporations is not thinkable. And maybe widespread naming and shaming, or just naming, will move that window. I think it's also possible that the sheer enormity of everything that you're going to see laid bare is going to very quickly lead to resignation and more handwringing, and not so quickly to actual reform. 
But if we're already at that stage now, we already have the stories - we already know the story. If we're already there, then we don't have to wait for corporate tax disclosure, do we? We can already accept the notion that if we're going to collect more from any taxpayer, corporate or not, what we need is not more public information, but more withholding and more third-party reporting. 
So let's see if I can unpack that a bit because I know that's to say a lot. I think it's worth noting that for the vast majority of people, it is not the case that the income tax system is voluntary. And why is that not the case? It is because for that vast majority, every dollar they earn is reported to the IRS by someone else. And most of these dollars are also subject to withholding, and so you have to work some to get any of it back at the end of the year. And if you are an employee, you won't get much opportunity in terms of base erosion at all; you're basically paying a gross receipts tax. We have made wage earners easy to tax with withholding and third-party reporting. And more or less, gross basis taxation with a few exceptions. 
But corporations are different. They are really hard to tax, especially when they are crossing borders. We give them lots of opportunities to carve away their gross and get to a very small net. Withholding and third-party reporting and filing for refunds is generally not the way we get corporations to pay tax. For them, as Reuven said earlier today, the income tax system really is voluntary, and lawmakers have given them a lot of discretion. Transfer pricing is just one very prominent example of this. 
... maybe disclosure is a way to have more informed public debate about the income tax system. But if we're having that discussion, then it seems not at all clear to me why we would be limiting the conversation to publicly traded corporations at all, when we are as or more interested in Cargill or SC Johnson or your local mom and pop cash flow all-cash business as we are in Google or Apple, who have at least to tell us a few stories about their tax affairs. 
And if we have that conversation, you must admit we are limiting ourselves to corporations ... and not looking at other untold billions of dollars that go untaxed because they're not subject to reporting or withholding. 
So now we come to the punch line, and that is that it is possible that corporate tax transparency is going to throw back the curtain on one sector of society - publicly traded corporations - but the irony is these are the people, this is the very sector about whom we actually have more information about tax than any other, precisely because they already have disclosure rules. That disclosure is exactly why we already know there's a problem, and yet we have not mustered the will to solve it. 
GE has been in the news with its zero corporate tax rate for years. ... I think little is likely to change with more info ... the conclusion, I think, we will be eventually forced to draw is that we, the public, haven't really mustered the political will for reform that would lead to more taxation of American companies. And we really can't help the IRS administer or enforce the tax system. In fact, as Josh suggests, we run the risk of undermining that effort, so disclosure might not get us very far at all. 
What we're going to have to do is start figuring out ways to do a lot more withholding and a lot more third-party reporting, and we are going to have to do that for all of our taxpayers, corporate or not, publicly traded or not. Maybe some or most of us already know that. We didn't need to read the corporate tax returns to tell us that, and we won't know anything new about the corporate tax system when we get that opportunity. 
Now I hate to end with the topic of FATCA. For those of you who don't know, FATCA is a global third-party reporting and preemptory withholding regime designed to make sure Americans declare and pay their taxes on income and assets held overseas. It is not a workable system, it's a mess, but think about the design. In theory, it says the IRS could eventually, once all the kinks are worked out and everybody gets onboard, track every dollar ever paid to any American anytime, anywhere. If that's true, if that's even partially possible, we can see the problem here is not at all about capacity. It is purely a question of political will and nothing more, and it never has been. 
A parade of stories about offshore tax evaders got the U.S. to adopt FATCA. Yet a parade of stories about GE, Google, and Apple avoiding their taxes has not got the U.S. to embrace corporate taxation. 
In fact, we seem to be seeing the opposite response in the base erosion and profit shifting initiative, but that's another story altogether. I'm not convinced, therefore, that corporate tax transparency will lead to more corporate tax. However, I would still love to get my hands on GE's tax return. Thank you.

Tagged as: corporate tax disclosure governance politics scholarship

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