With the return of Canada's Parliament to business this week, debate theoretically should take place on Bill C-82, An Act to implement a multilateral convention to implement tax treaty related measures to prevent base erosion and profit shifting, a.k.a. the "Multilateral Instrument in Respect of Tax Conventions Act" (the official short title). But we can call it the BEPS bill since its job is to implement a set of consensus positions the OECD developed to eliminate "Base Erosion and Profit Shifting" by multinational taxpayers.
This BEPS Bill implements the OECD's MLI to Prevent BEPS, which is a multilateral treaty that amends existing bilateral tax treaties. The rationale is that countries were engaging in or at least facilitating BEPS, and they were often doing so through tax treaties, so a blanket change to a few thousand of these treaties was needed to prevent ongoing tax avoidance.
Given that the BEPS bill adopts one treaty to rule them all, Parliament might be expected to undertake careful scrutiny of its terms, but these expectations are not likely to be met. A study I completed with help from a very adept graduate student in 2016, entitled “While Parliament Sleeps: Tax Treaty Practice in Canada,” (published in the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law / Revue de droit parlementaire et politique 10 (1) : 15-38, March / mars 2016 and available in draft form here), found that over a fifteen year period, Parliament has adopted legislation implementing 32 international tax agreements without a single standing vote occurring in the House of Commons at any point in the legislative process.
These 32 agreements collectively form over 750 pages of binding law in Canada, none of which was considered for more than two sittings at any stage of consideration in either the Senate or House of Commons.
In Canada, tax-treaty implementing legislation is generally introduced in the Senate, studied very little there, and then sent to the House of Commons where it receives even less attention. Although tax scholars focus, rightfully, on scrutinizing the substance of tax treaties, we should not be lulled into ignoring the process by which Parliament discharges its role in legislating tax treaty implementation. To that end, some of the debate in Parliament is downright disappointing.
For example, consider the most recent exercise (written after my study), when the Senate was seized with Bill S-4, whose official summary reads:
This enactment implements a convention between the Government of Canada and the Government of the State of Israel for the avoidance of double taxation and the prevention of fiscal evasion with respect to taxes on income and an arrangement between the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada for the avoidance of double taxation and the prevention of fiscal evasion with respect to taxes on income. It also amends the Canada–Hong Kong Tax Agreement Act, 2013 to add to it, for greater certainty, an interpretation provision.In a speech of only a few minutes on the bill, the Legislative Deputy of the Government Representative in the Senate stated:
It is urgent that we move forward with the study of this bill because if we want the agreements on double taxation to go into effect in 2017, the bill must receive Royal Assent by the end of 2016. Therefore, I invite all honourable Senators who wish to speak to this bill to do so as quickly as possible so that the bill may be referred to a committee as soon as possible.In total, the entire House Finance Committee's study took less than 15 minutes. The third reading debate in the Senate lasted less than 10 minutes and, after calling the bill a "no-brainer," a "marvellous bill," and "a continuity-of-government bill" that "does wonderful things for Canadian industry and consumers alike," the Senators continued with this exchange:
Senator Day: Should I tell anybody what this bill is about?Then followed a dubiously notable comment by Senator Plett that "I'd like to add my voice and simply say that this, again, is clear evidence that occasionally a good biscuit can be found in a garbage can."
Some Hon. Senators: No.
The idea that Parliament should rush to meet the government’s preferred timetable in what the Senate characterizes as a "garbage can" of a bill (or of a government--I am not sure which) is highly problematic. If it takes longer to scrutinize a bill, so be it. The government – for its part – didn’t leave Parliament much time in this case, having only introduced S-4 in the Senate on November 1st, 2016. By the time the Legislative Deputy of the Government Representative in the Senate got to make her speech on November 24th, the clock was ticking quickly toward the MPs' and Senators' winter break.
I single out this debate not only for the unprincipled concession to expedited timing, but particularly for the exchange that followed. A Senator asked the Legislative Deputy of the Government Representative in the Senate “In your opinion, does the bill before us pertain to our participation in the WTO?” The response: “I do not know much about this bill. However, I do know that it is important, that it is urgent that we move it along, and that it has significant consequences.”
Putting aside the carefree decision to speak to a bill one “does not know much about” and the apparent confusion about how the bill relates to the WTO (did the Senator mistake a tax treaty for a trade agreement?), it would be hard to characterize the limited early Senate Chamber debate as well-informed or thoughtful in any way. On the House side, the bill was fast-tracked – a motion passed by unanimous consent stipulated that “when the House begins debate on the third reading motion of the Bill, a Member from each recognized party, as well as a Member from the Bloc Québécois, may speak for not more than five minutes, with no question and comment period, after which the Bill shall be deemed read a third time and passed."
As such, in its last debate, the bill received less than 20 minutes of attention in the House with no questions –that is, each party spoke but there was no dialogue in substance. The bill received Royal Assent on December 15th, 2016.
This brings me back to the BEPS Bill, which actually bucks the trend by being introduced in the House of Commons instead of the Senate. This is important because even though Senate debates on tax treaty implementing legislation are limited (as evidenced above), the Senate is still the body that generally studies these matters and has nominally built up expertise. Because the general trend in Parliament is that the Chamber that receives a tax bill second is the one that studies it less, one is left to hope without confidence that the House will undertake its due diligence.
There is cause for concern with C-82. Unlike the other tax treaty implementing bills I studied, this was preceded by a ways and means motion that provided the text of the bill in advance. In other words, the Minister of Finance tabled a notice on May 28th that contained essentially what would become C-82. But, rather than debate the Notice, the House on June 19th deemed that motion agreed to and further deemed the BEPS bill formally introduced.
Without venturing too far into the procedural weeds, it is perhaps sufficient to observe that there could have been a debate on that ways and means motion. Instead, the decision in June deemed this motion adopted ‘on division’ – that is, dissent is indicated for the record but we don’t know who disagreed or on what basis because there was no actual debate on the record.
This leads me to wonder whether we’ll see an actual debate occur on the merits of C-82 if even its introduction was fast-tracked through deeming. I doubt it. After all, MPs (and Senators alike) often find tax matters confusing and technical. Maybe in this case especially, the whole things seems like a foregone conclusion since we are talking about an OECD initiative in which Canada has been involved over many years. Moreover, Canada's undertakings in the MLI are modest to say the least. Even so, that doesn’t mean these bills don’t deserve careful study since it is agreed that certain tax arrangements erode Canada’s tax base (cf: the recently decided Alta Energy case). It is much harder (and more costly) to re-negotiate and re-legislate (if need be) a treaty than to get things right the first time (for a discussion, see See Charlie Feldman, “Parliamentary Practice and Treaties” (2015) 9 J. Parliamentary & Pol. L. 585). Adopt in haste, repent at leisure ought to be a mantra for tax treaties.
Unfortunately, Canada's Parliament has limited involvement in the treaty process and only so much influence over treaty-implementing legislation. An additional concern is that there is only so much time left in the legislative calendar with an election a year away. The government has important pieces of legislation moving – including implementing the TPP, adopting the first-ever national legislation on accessibility, and an election law overhaul that the government has already tried to fast-track. Moreover, of the 366 commitments the Trudeau government has made, the government’s own analysis indicates that just 96 have thus far been met. Many others also
Moreover, Parliament already has many bills to consider which have yet to complete the legislative process. Parliament's Legislation-at-a-glance page shows just how much each House has before it already, including criminal justice and family law reforms, firearms regulation, and military justice changes remaining in the House, and many big legislative matters before the Senate including bills on sustainable development, access to information, and fisheries reform. While the BEPS bill could be a step ahead of bills yet to come, it is easy to imagine easier-to-debate matters (such as labour reforms) getting much more debate in the House and, if and when it does get to the Senate, that body will be even more pressed for time given all the other items from the House being added to its plate.
Tagged as: BEPS Canada MLI scholarship
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
Arthur Cockfield has posted a paper of interest, entitled How Countries Should Share Tax Information. Here is the abstract:
There are increasing policy concerns that aggressive international tax avoidance and offshore tax evasion significantly reduce government revenues. In particular, for some low income countries the amount of capital flight (where elites move and hide monies offshore in tax havens) exceeds foreign aid. Governments struggle to enforce their tax laws to constrain these actions, but are inhibited by a lack of information concerning international capital flows. The main international policy response to these developments has been to promote global financial transparency through heightened cross-border exchanges of tax information. The paper discusses elements of optimal cross-border tax information exchange laws and policies by focusing on three key challenges: information quality, taxpayer privacy, and enforcement. Relatedly, the paper discusses how the exchange of automatic ‘big tax data’ combined with data analytics can help address the challenges.Cockfield seeks to find a solution that balances the need of the state for extensive information in order to protect the integrity of the income tax system against the need of the individual for protection from abuse by the state. That is no easy balance to strike. From the paper:
All of [the recent information gathering and exchange] efforts seek to provide governments with more and better tax information, and reduce costs through agreement on underlying EOI rules and principles. The reforms, however, largely do not address how financial secrecy laws subvert global financial transparency initiatives. Nor do they address legal technical complexity that raises transaction costs, and makes it even harder for low and middle income countries to implement and enforce EOI. While the EOI reforms are positive steps, given an environment of high transaction costs it may be difficult to make progress in addressing key policy challenges....
Data availability, usefulness and verifiability are three components of high quality information that can help governments pursue their cross-border investigations and audits. In particular, transferred information should be relatable to domestic tax identification measures, and checked against third party reporting, and withholding tax disclosures. Once this is done, governments can conduct analysis to determine audit risk by focusing on issues such as taxpayer segmentation, dealings between the taxpayer and offshore service providers, and cross-indexing tax and financial information against non-tax data (e.g., insurance policy disclosures).
Against this desire for high quality tax information stands (shrugs?) taxpayer privacy concerns. The apprehensions arise from the varied levels of domestic legal protection afforded to privacy rights, along with the risk of abuse or misuse of transferred information. Accordingly, broader multilateral agreement on privacy protections is likely a prerequisite to effective EOI. This hoped-for cooperation is hindered by the fact that many countries refuse to abolish their financial secrecy laws, which stands as one of the main barriers to optimal reform.My view is that maintaining the integrity of the income tax system appears to require building the panopticon, and much more besides. The steady decline of support for coherent corporate income taxation makes greater and greater individual surveillance necessary, while also making personal income taxation harder. I am not sure where the point lies at which the costs and risks attendant to building the necessary compliance and enforcement infrastructure exceed the benefits of maintaining personal taxes based on income.
Tagged as: information institutions rule of law scholarship
Further to my last post on the newly released Tax Gap study by the Canada Revenue Agency, the following comes from guest blogger Iain Campbell (ARC, UK):
Tagged as: Canada tax gap tax policy
The Government of Canada has released its first study of the "tax gap," which the Government defines as "the difference between the tax that would be paid if all obligations were fully met in all instances, and the tax actually paid and collected." The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has not completed a study of the income tax, but has released this paper on the concept and methodology. It has presented a report for GST/HST (Canada's VAT), estimating the tax gap to average about 5.6% per year over the period 2000-2014. For 2014, this produced an estimated tax gap of about $4.9 billion:
This study has been undertaken after many calls from academics and nongovernment organizations, including Canadians for Tax Fairness, which according to the CRA will be involved in consultations regarding the ongoing study. Canadians for Tax Fairness estimate that Canada loses $7.8 billion in income tax revenues to "tax haven" use, a number they constructed using Statistics Canada's foreign direct investment data.
The Government acknowledges that there is no reliable method for measuring the tax gap, and that the exercise is one in speculation based on imperfect information:
There are a number of challenges facing tax administrations undertaking tax gap estimation. The key challenge is access to the comprehensive and good-quality data necessary to produce estimates. A significant proportion of the tax gap involves unreported or under-reported income and assets and economic activity that are deliberately hidden from the government. As a result, many countries that publish tax gap estimates highlight their uncertainty.Expect more to come from this exercise as the tax gap study is a key component of the Government's pledge to spend $444 million over five years "to enhance [CRA] efforts to crack down on tax evasion and combat tax avoidance."
Tagged as: budget Canada compliance CRA evasion governance
This Friday, I'll be in London participating in a conference on tax avoidance and evasion, hosted by the Journal of Tax Administration. Here is the program:
11.15 – 11.50 Matthew Rablen: Optimal Income Tax Enforcement in the Presence of Tax Avoidance
11.50 – 12.25 Maya Forstater: Can Stopping ‘Tax Dodging’ by Multinational Enterprises Close the Gap in Development Finance?
12.25 – 13.00 Allison Christians: Tax Avoidance in a World of Aggressive Tax States
13.00 – 13.45 Lunch
13.45 – 14.15 Federica Bardini: The “Ius Commune Europeum” on Tax Avoidance
14.15 - 14.45 Shu-Chien Chen: The Common Pattern of the “Tax Avoidance Concept” in the EU and USA
14.45 – 15.00 Discussion
15.00 – 15.20 Break
15.20 – 15.55 David Duff: Tax Avoidance – Causes, Consequences and Responses
15.55 – 16.30 David Quentin: Tax Risk Mining and Corporate Responsibility for Human Rights
Here is the abstract for my presentation:
Tax Avoidance in a World of Aggressive Tax States
Media coverage of tax “dodging” by high profile elites and multinational companies leads the public to believe that tax avoidance happens when individuals act to thwart the efforts of the state. Confined to the domestic arena this may be an apt description, and a problem anti-avoidance regimes are designed to solve. But on an international scale, tax avoidance is not a one-person show. Instead, it involves interactions among four types of actors: individuals, home states, host states, and intermediary states. International tax avoidance persists largely because home, host, and intermediary states intentionally use their tax systems to lure investment away from other jurisdictions that impose higher tax burdens, and individuals do their best to exploit available opportunities to the fullest. In deciding whether and how law should be used to prevent international tax avoidance, the goals and interests of each of the four actors must be examined.
Tagged as: conference fiscal state aid institutions Tax law tax policy
I've talked to a few journalists and commented a bit on the Panama Papers (e.g. here at 6:09 and here) but I've refrained from writing much to date because I am uneasy about a couple of central themes in this story: first, the constant confluence of tax evasion and tax avoidance, which are two completely different phenomena that require two very different responses in my view, and second the bashing of Panama as if only bad things can be done there, so anyone who does anything there from anywhere else must be doing a bad thing.
I am uneasy about this bashing because, although I think there are bad guys doing bad things in Panama, I also think there are bad guys doing bad things all over the world and I don't like Panama being singled out; I am also wary of suggesting that in a world of global trade and investment flows, anything and everything done through or with Panama must eternally be tinged with a sense of wrongdoing. This sense seems to imbue the imagination in the campaigns to "shut down the tax havens." What, exactly, does that mean? Does it mean that some countries, because someone decides they are mostly bad actors, must be effectively cut off from the global financial system and no one must be allowed to transact with or in these countries from the outside? What if most of the world are actually bad actors, each scheming to use its tax system to undermine and undercut the others? That's essentially the vision drawn by the OECD in countering BEPS, so we will run into some problems if we take this reasoning to its logical conclusion. But if this is not the idea behind shutting down tax havens, then what is envisioned, exactly?
Tax justice advocates seem to envision an invasive global regulatory regime in which every person in the world will have all of their assets and financial information catalogued and tagged and made public to everyone else, in order to make sure no one can break any tax rules. If this is being done just for tax--that is, if this is what it takes to make the income tax "work," I am not sure that the income tax is worth all of that trouble and everything given up to achieve it. That includes privacy, which appears to itself have become a suspicious word in certain circles, as if only those doing bad things have a desire to keep anything about their lives private. Let us recall Glenn Greenwald's words on why privacy should not come to be seen as a sinister desire. It is possible to break the tax law like it is possible to break any other law. But is requiring everyone to show all of their assets to everyone else in order to prove no laws have been broken a valid response to this enduring problem? I cannot agree with this Orwellian vision of the world. I also do not think this view is sensible if the issue is really driven by tax. If it is, then surely we can find a less invasive way to fund public goods and services.
This brings me to the evasion/avoidance point, which I find being abused just as much by lawmakers and policy advocates as it is by journalists who don't know any better.
Tax evasion is a crime that involves hiding things from a legal authority. Tax avoidance is not a crime that involves hiding: it is achieved in full view of the legal authorities. The former is a very very difficult problem but is not primarily a tax policy problem. Instead it is primarily a global financial system problem that is created, like most global financial system problems, by virtue of the difficulty of regulating behaviours in a world in which technology has moved us far beyond the frontiers of the nation state.
On the other hand, 'aggressive" tax avoidance (loosely speaking; more analysis here)--that is, avoidance not intentionally allowed by rules such as those to defer tax on retirement savings--is a tax policy issue. Taxpayers and their advisers are always going to cook up new schemes to get around inconvenient tax rules. Knowing this, regulators must decide whether and how to react. They may react with any number of tools that create an infinite call and response loop among regulators, taxpayers, administrators, and judges. These include such things as general and specific anti-avoidance rules, uncertain tax position disclosure, and random audit strategies. None of these things has the first thing to say about how to deal with a corrupt government official who steals money from the public fisc and invests it in US and European stocks and bonds through a maze of trusts and companies formed in other jurisdictions. It's just a totally different problem.
I know and understand that bad guys are always lurking around to defeat the tax law, as they are in any regulatory field. I don't have any special insights about how to deal with corruption and criminality. But in my experience with tax, when a government moves to "crack down" on bad guys, the really serious criminals--including government officials themselves--all too often escape while everyone else finds themselves increasingly tracked, surveilled, and treated like criminals even as the resources to cope with fixable tax policy flaws diminish. I don't have any answers for these worries.
Tagged as: evasion governance offshore tax policy
WASHINGTON - Today, the Treasury Department issued a newly revised U.S. Model Income Tax Convention (the “2016 Model”), which is the baseline text the Treasury Department uses when it negotiates tax treaties. The U.S. Model Income Tax Convention was last updated in 2006.
“The 2016 Model is the result of a concerted effort by the Treasury Department to further our policy commitment to provide relief from double taxation and ensure certainty and stability in the tax treatment of treaty residents,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Tax Affairs Robert B. Stack. “The 2016 Model includes a number of provisions intended to eliminate double taxation without creating opportunities for non-taxation or reduced taxation through tax evasion or avoidance,” he added.
Many of the 2016 Model updates reflect technical improvements developed in the context of bilateral tax treaty negotiations and do not represent substantive changes to the prior model. The 2016 Model also includes a number of new provisions intended to more effectively implement the Treasury Department’s longstanding policy that tax treaties should eliminate double taxation without creating opportunities for non-taxation or reduced taxation through tax evasion or avoidance. For example, the 2016 Model does not reduce withholding taxes on payments of highly mobile income—income that taxpayers can easily shift around the globe through deductible payments such as royalties and interest—that are made to related persons that enjoy low or no taxation with respect to that income under a preferential tax regime. In addition, a new article obligates the treaty partners to consult with a view to amending the treaty as necessary when changes in the domestic law of a treaty partner draw into question the treaty’s original balance of negotiated benefits and the need for the treaty to reduce double taxation. The 2016 Model also includes measures to reduce the tax benefits of corporate inversions. Specifically, it denies reduced withholding taxes on U.S. source payments made by companies that engage in inversions to related foreign persons.
The Treasury Department has been a strong proponent of facilitating the resolution of disputes between tax authorities regarding the application of tax treaties. Accordingly, the 2016 Model contains rules requiring that such disputes be resolved through mandatory binding arbitration. The “last best offer” approach to arbitration in the 2016 Model is substantively the same as the arbitration provision in four U.S. tax treaties in force and three U.S. tax treaties that are awaiting the advice and consent of the Senate.
The 2016 Model reflects comments that the Treasury Department received in response to the proposed model treaty provisions it released on May 20, 2015. The Treasury Department carefully considered all the comments it received and made a number of modifications to the proposed model treaty provisions in response to those comments.Highlights mine. There is much to be discussed in this of course and I will make no attempt to be comprehensive here, but I made a quick comparison doc that might be useful; download here. Just at first glance: can you spot the BEPS? Action 6 is plainly at work, and probably others.
The Treasury Department is preparing a detailed technical explanation of the 2016 Model, which it plans to release this spring. The preamble to the 2016 Model invites comments regarding certain situations that should be addressed in the technical explanation for the so-called “active trade or business” test of Article 22 (Limitation on Benefits). See the preamble page 5. The deadline for public comments on this subject is April 18, 2016.
My current interest is in what I am calling the new "kill-switch" provisions, the special tax regime (art 3, 11, 12, 21, 22) and subsequent law changes (art 28) provisions alluded to in the bold highlighted text above. I'm working on a paper on this subject and will have more analysis soon.
Tagged as: international law soft law tax policy treaties US
Art Cockfield has posted a new paper on SSRN, Big Data and Tax Haven Secrecy, forthcoming Florida Tax Review. The article sets out research he did with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and is of interest. Here is the abstract:
While there is now a significant literature in law, politics, economics, and other disciplines that examines tax havens, there is little information on what tax haven intermediaries — so-called offshore service providers — actually do to facilitate offshore evasion, international money laundering and the financing of global terrorism. To provide insight into this secret world of tax havens, this Article relies on the author’s study of big data derived from the financial data leak obtained by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). A hypothetical involving Breaking Bad’s Walter White is used to explain how offshore service providers facilitate global financial crimes. The Article deploys a transaction cost perspective to assist in understanding the information and incentive problems revealed by the ICIJ data leak, including how tax haven secrecy enables elites in non-democratic countries to transfer their monies for ultimate investment in stable democratic countries. The approach also emphasizes how, even in a world of perfect information, political incentives persist that thwart cooperative efforts to inhibit global financial crimes.
Tagged as: evasion information scholarship tax policy
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.