September 10, 2016
A few days ago I argued that one way to get around the tax games that Apple and other corporations play is to require them to turn over a proportion of their stock in the form of non-voting shares. These shares would get the same benefits that any voting shares would receive in the form of dividends and share buybacks, but would give the government no say in the running of the company. This should get rid of most of the opportunities for gaming the tax system and assure the government its targeted percentage of corporate profits.
Bruce Bartlett, who was an economist in the Reagan and Bush I administrations, reminded me of his even simpler approach. Bruce suggests that the government tax corporations at some percentage of their market capitalization on a randomly selected date in the prior calendar quarter.
Suppose that the goal is to get an amount of tax revenue equal to 25 percent of corporate profits (a bit more than we now take in). If the ratio of stock prices to after-tax profits is 24 to 1 (roughly current levels), then the ratio of stock prices to before-tax profit is 18 to 1, implying that profits are 5.6 percent of the share price. If we want to collect 25 percent of the profits in taxes, then we would require companies to pay 1.9 percent of their share price on a randomly selected date from the prior quarter. (Actually, since we are looking at four quarterly payments, each would be one-fourth of this amount, or 0.475 percent of the share price.)
It’s difficult to see how corporations can game this one. We also need to have a mechanism for taxing privately held companies. (My addendum would be to have an annual assessment of the company to determine its market value. This would be less precise than actually having a market value to directly rely upon, but there is no reason to assume an obvious bias in the mechanism. Also, if a company felt that the auditors were consistently giving it an excessive valuation, it would provide a strong incentive to go public.)
Anyhow, progressives should be looking for these sort of simple mechanisms for getting the money out of the Apples and other tax schemers in the world. We need the revenue and we also should want to put the tax gaming industry out of business. There are a lot of people getting very rich because of their cleverness in finding ways to get around the tax code. This is a major source of inequality and a waste from an economic standpoint.
Note: Bruce directs me to a 2007 Tax Notes article by Calvin Johnson as the basis for this idea.