The Real Tax Threat to American Businesses

America's real corporate tax problem is that big companies get away with paying nothing.

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'You can no longer tax corporations the way you used to because corporations will in fact move,' says one expert.

American businesses face some serious challenges from taxes. But it's not due to America's tax rates, as many big business CEOs would have you believe. Our corporate tax problems stem from a corporate tax code with so many perks, credits and loopholes in it that many U.S. multinational corporations pay little to no taxes. This starves our national budget and imperils public education, innovative research and infrastructure, the sort of public investments that help make our businesses and economy competitive. And, maybe even worse, it's unfair.

I'm an accountant. I know about taxes. I help my clients take advantage of the deductions and incentives to which they are entitled. But because of accounting tricks my clients cannot use, many giant U.S. corporations pay taxes at effective rates far lower than most small businesses and many middle class families. The average U.S. multinational corporation paid just 12.6 percent of its income in taxes in 2010, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Some of the most unfair corporate tax loopholes for America's competitive position in the world are the offshore tax loopholes. These loopholes alone cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated $90 billion a year. They also create an unfair playing field between domestic businesses like I serve in my practice, and the large multinational firms, whose high priced tax attorneys and lobbyists have devised ways to shift profits earned in the United States to the world's tax haven countries where those profits are taxed lightly, if at all.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

For instance, some software companies take patents on products developed in the U.S. and register them in a foreign tax haven. When a U.S. customer purchases the product, the company sends a large chunk of the purchase price to the tax haven to pay for the use of the patent. Thus the company reduces its effective corporate tax rate – sometimes even below 10 percent.

My clients don't have this option. Nor would they want it. They are restaurants and dry cleaners, medical practices, small manufacturers and auto repair shops. They work hard and they expect to pay their fair share of taxes. They are the engines of our local economy, just as similar small companies are the engines of local economies across the country. They provide needed goods and services. They provide needed jobs. And they pay needed taxes.

Their taxes help pay for public investment in schools, roads, courts, public transit, public safety, public health – all of the basic infrastructure that enables all businesses to function and thrive. Since they benefit – as we all do – from those tax investments, it's only fair that they should pay their share.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But their counterparts at large US multinationals don't have to. And it's the tax code that lets them. It's as if the tax code pretends that they are operating in a third world country with no infrastructure to support. That's ridiculous, of course. I'm good at accounting and bookkeeping, but I sure wouldn't want a client trying to operate their entire business in a rural part of a third world country.

Our tax code should be fair and should encourage investment in our shared future. When we invest together we start a virtuous cycle of growth. But when people, whether individuals or business owners, think the tax system is rigged in favor of one group or another – say U.S. multinational companies using overseas tax havens – they rightly feel that they are paying more than their fair share. They lose faith in the system.

And when tax revenues are lower than they would be without such loopholes, policymakers look for ways to cut spending. This starts a vicious cycle of ever-shrinking economic activity and ever reducing tax revenue.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Fixing the tax code is the answer, and a good place to start is with the unfair overseas loopholes that undermine our faith in the tax system and rob our communities and the nation of vital investments in the future.

It makes no sense for our tax code to be hurting domestic job creators and undermining the tax base for our schools, roads, police and other vital services and infrastructure.

The tax reform America needs is one that closes many of the unfair loopholes won by big business lobbyists over the last three decades. We need the extra revenue collected to invest in the 21st century economy that will sustain our families, our communities and our businesses.

Brian Setzler is president of TriLibrium, a public accounting and business advisory firm in Portland, OR, and a member of Business for Shared Prosperity.

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