There are two tax-cut ideas floating around Washington right now. Both go to businesses. Both are being sold as further stimulus. But only one is even worth considering. The other would do nothing for jobs, would vastly increase deficits now and into the future and would permanently lower the tax rate on overseas income from 35 percent to 5 percent, even though it’s being billed as “temporary.” It’s a bad idea — very bad, in fact — but there’s so much money behind it that it just might pass.
The bad business tax cut is a holiday for the profit that corporations are storing overseas. Why are corporations storing that profit overseas? Well, because they’re hoping the government will give them another big tax cut for bringing it home.
Yes, another. We did this in 2004 under President George W. Bush. It was called “the American Job Creation Act.” Did it create jobs? No. The National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that the holiday “did not increase domestic investment, employment or research and development.” Instead, over 90 percent of the $312 billion that corporations brought home went to increased dividends and stock buybacks. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service scoured even more analyses and reported that a series of empirical econometric studies have concluded that the American Jobs Creation Act repatriation provisions did not increase domestic economic activity.”
Even the academics who supported the idea as recently as 2008 have cooled on it. “Many who want this policy try to advocate it as a jobs-creation program, but that is not what I found,” economist Allen Sinai, author of an influential 2008 report advocating a holiday, told the New York Times. “What I found was that it would shore up the corporate balance sheets during the depths of the financial crisis and create some jobs. But the balance sheets are already so good that I don’t think there’s a rationale any longer that simply rebuilding the companies’ finances will lead to hiring.”
But the bigger problem is that corporations get addicted to these holidays. They got one in 2004, and now they’re pumping billions into getting another in 2012. Corporations are holding more money overseas than they otherwise would because they don’t want to bring that cash home in 2011 and pay taxes on it only to see a holiday pass in 2012. And if we pass two of these holidays in under a decade, corporations will never bring money home unless they’re given another holiday to do so, because they will know that eventually they will be given another holiday to do so. That’ll take our effective corporate tax rate on overseas income down from about 35 percent all the way to 5 percent.
But for precisely that reason, there’s a lot of money pushing this idea. Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have already signed onto it. There’s substantial support from congressional Republicans. Anita Dunn, President Obama’s former communications director, and Doug Thornell, Rep. Chris van Hollen’s former communications director, are helping to run the advocacy campaign. On the other side? Articles, like this one in the New York Times and this one in Business Week, that are vainly trying to remind everyone what a bad idea this is.
But if businesses want a tax cut and this isn’t the right one to give them, perhaps there’s a compromise available: extending the payroll tax cut to employers, which actually is a good idea. More on that later.