The Great Tax Holiday Scam

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 11:22 AM EDT

The New York Times reports that corporate lobbyists are renewing a push for a "one time" deal that allows them to bring foreign profits back into the U.S. at a low tax rate:

Under the proposal, known as a repatriation holiday, the federal income tax owed on such profits returned to the United States would fall to 5.25 percent for one year, from 35 percent. In the short term, the measure could generate tens of billions in tax revenues as companies transfer money that would otherwise remain abroad, and it could help ease the huge budget deficit.

Corporations and their lobbyists say the tax break could resuscitate the gasping recovery by inducing multinational corporations to inject $1 trillion or more into the economy, and they promoted the proposal as “the next stimulus” at a conference last Wednesday in Washington.

This is ridiculous: I know that "stimulus" is the excuse du jour for everything, but companies don't expand and hire more people because their corporate treasuries are flush. They expand and hire more people when they think demand for their goods and services is strong. Besides, corporate treasuries are already flush with cash that isn't being used to expand operations. So why would this make any difference?

Kudos, then, to reporter David Kocieniewski, who points this out in the very next paragraph:

But that’s not how it worked last time. Congress and the Bush administration offered companies a similar tax incentive, in 2005, in hopes of spurring domestic hiring and investment, and 800 took advantage. Though the tax break lured them into bringing $312 billion back to the United States, 92 percent of that money was returned to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks, according to a study by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research.

Indeed, 60 percent of the benefits went to just 15 of the largest United States multinational companies — many of which laid off domestic workers, closed plants and shifted even more of their profits and resources abroad in hopes of cashing in on the next repatriation holiday.

That money didn't go toward corporate expansion last time and it won't go toward corporate expansion this time. It will just fill up corporate treasuries and get distributed to shareholders, who are disproportionately well off and unlikely to use the money for increased consumption. The whole thing is just a scam.

America's corporate tax code needs an overhaul. The way we treat overseas income might need an overhaul too — though doing it properly would require some new regulations that corporations might not like so much. But without that overhaul, yet another tax holiday does nothing except to make the rich richer. It won't do a thing to get the economy moving again.

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