Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why do we tax business?

There is probably nothing more important to an individual or household today than a good, stable job. In countless surveys, nothing yields greater unhappiness than unemployment. There is good reason to believe that state policy-makers should focus on this issue above all others.

Creating and sustaining good jobs is all about competitive advantage. It means producing high quality goods at the lowest possible cost. It is simply about productivity. Taxes may not be the most important factor in global competitiveness but they are a factor that policy-makers can actually control.

Why do we tax business?  There are a couple of theories that are used to justify business taxes. One theory is benefits received. We tax business to insure that the price of goods reflects the social costs are spent on creating that good. These costs would include water, sewage, public safety, environmental protection and a skilled workforce. Many of these goods are goods that corporations receive for free but somebody has to pay for them - taxpayers. 

Another theory is ability to pay. Businesses should pay their share of taxes based on their ability to pay taxes. Since business owners make a lot of money, we can indirectly tax them by taxing their business.

Economists say that taxes have the effect of creating inefficiencies in both the process of production and in the distribution of goods. Taxes will change the mix of goods produced. Taxes create a deadweight loss in our economy by reducing the consumer and producer surplus by more than the actual amount of the tax itself.  

In general, taxes are most efficient when they fall on those who have the most difficulty avoiding them.  Big corporations can and do spend an enormous resources shifting avoiding taxes and the government spends enormous amounts of resources  trying to make rules to stop them.  They also spend enormous amounts of money on lobbyists to get them special tax breaks.

But most importantly, in a global economy business taxes can reduce competitiveness. They either reduce the amount of capital invested in a company or they increase the price of the good. In today's hyper competitive markets, small price differentials matter.

What if we created a serious competitive advantage for Washington by simply eliminating all business taxes. We could replace the taxes by fees on specific services and progressive taxes on individuals.

Many of the benefits received by businesses are already captured by specific fees on those services. The costs of sewage, water, electricity, and roads are already charged directly to businesses based on actual usage. Supply and demand for the specific service determine the price. We could extend this approach to directly charging businesses for additional services like education. Or perhaps we could even charge a large proportion of those services to individuals who earn money from companies rather than the companies themselves.

You can't tax a corporation; you can only tax a person  Ultimately all of the earnings of businesses go to individuals in the forms of interest, dividends, profits or wages. Rather than trying to indirectly get at that revenue through business taxes, why don't we just tax the income those individuals earn. The tax is thus based on the individuals ability to pay. There is no distortion on the productive process, no change in the mix of goods produced and no competitive disadvantage in global competition. The deadweight loss to the economy from business taxation is eliminated. 

If this is such a good idea why haven't we done this already?  I would venture to guess is that  policy-makers have never offered this specific trade-off.  Given the condition of our economy today, perhaps now is the time to look at it.

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