Should the U.S. government tax corporate income from overseas?
The answer from economist Mihir Desai, professor at Harvard Business School:
Firms Face Tighter Tax Rules
The Obama administration is rolling out details Monday of what aides are calling a far-reaching crackdown on offshore tax avoidance, targeting many U.S.-based multinational corporations and wealthy individuals.
President Barack Obama will flesh out a proposal included in his February budget blueprint seeking to curb the practice of parking foreign earnings in offshore tax havens indefinitely. By some estimates, $700 billion or more in U.S. corporate earnings have accumulated in overseas accounts in recent years.
The plan to be announced Monday will go further. It aims to change the legal treatment of offshore subsidiaries and structures that companies have used to avoid not only U.S. taxes, but taxes in other developed countries as well.
Tax policy toward American multinational firms would appear to be approaching a crossroads. The presumed linkages between domestic employment conditions and the growth of foreign operations by American firms have led to calls for increased taxation on foreign operations - the so-called end to tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas. At the same time, the current tax regime employed by the U.S. is being abandoned by the two remaining large capital exporters - the UK and Japan - that had maintained similar regimes. The conundrum facing policymakers is how to reconcile mounting pressures for increased tax burdens on foreign activity with the increasing exceptionalism of American policy. This paper address these questions by analyzing the available evidence on two related claims - i) that the current U.S. policy of deferring taxation of foreign profits represents a subsidy to American firms and ii) that activity abroad by multinational firms represents the displacement of activity that would have otherwise been undertaken at home. These two tempting claims are found to have limited, if any, systematic support. Instead, modern welfare norms that capture the nature of multinational firm activity recommend a move toward not taxing the foreign activities of American firms, rather than taxing them more heavily. Similarly, the weight of the empirical evidence is that foreign activity is a complement, rather than a substitute, for domestic activity. Much as the formulation of trade policy requires resisting the tempting logic of protectionism, the appropriate taxation of multinational firms requires a similar fortitude.