Like too many other long-reigning fixtures on Capitol Hill, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) doesn't appreciate the magnitude of the challenge to the authority he presumes to hold over America's job and wealth creators. Or, maybe he does, and frustration over that fact explains why he besmirches companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard.
Levin presided over a Senate hearing last week devoted to examining the "loopholes and gimmicks" used by these multinational companies to avoid paying taxes — and to branding them dirty tax scofflaws. Well here's a news flash for the senator: incentives matter.
The byzantine U.S. tax code, which Senator Levin — over his 33-year tenure in the U.S. Senate — no doubt had a hand or two in shaping, includes the highest corporate income tax rate among all of the world's industrialized countries and the unusual requirement that profits earned abroad by U.S. multinationals are subject to U.S. taxation upon repatriation. No other major economy does that. Who in their right minds would not expect those incentives to encourage moving production off shore and keeping profits there?
Minimizing exposure to taxes — like avoiding an oncoming truck — is a natural reaction to tax policy. Entire software and accounting industries exist to serve that specific objective. Unless they are illegal (and that is not what Levin asserts directly), the tax minimization programs employed at Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard are legitimate responses to the tax policies implemented and foreshadowed by this and previous congresses. If Levin is concerned about diminishing federal tax collections from corporations (which, of course, reduces his power), the solution is to change the incentives — to change the convoluted artifice of backroom politics that is our present tax code.
Combine the current tax incentive structure with stifling, redundant environmental, financial, and health and safety regulations, an out-of-control tort system that often starts with a presumption of corporate malfeasance, exploding health care costs, and costly worker's compensation rules, and it becomes apparent why more and more businesses would consider moving operations abroad — permanently. Thanks to the progressive trends of globalization, liberalization, transportation, and communication, societies' producers are no longer quite as captive to confiscatory or otherwise suffocating domestic policies. They have choices.
Of course many choose to stay, and for good reason. We are fortunate to have the institutions, the rule of law, deep and diversified capital markets, excellent research universities, a highly-skilled workforce, cultural diversity, and a society that not only tolerates but encourages dissent, and the world's largest consumer market — still. Success is more likely to be achieved in an environment with those advantages. They are the ingredients of our ingenuity, our innovativeness, our willingness to take risks as entrepreneurs, and our economic success. This is why companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Hewlett-Packard are born in the United States.
But those advantages are eroding. While U.S. policymakers browbeat U.S. companies and threaten them with sanctions for "shipping jobs overseas" or "hiding profits abroad" or some other manifestation of what politicians like to call corporate greed, characterizing them as a scourge to be contained and controlled, other governments are hungry for the benefits those companies can provide their people. Some of those governments seem to recognize that the world's wealth and jobs creators have choices about where they produce, sell, and conduct research and development. And some are acting to attract U.S. businesses with incentives that become less necessary every time a politician vents his spleen about evil corporations. Not only should our wealth creators be treated with greater respect from Washington, but we are kidding ourselves if we think our policies don't need to keep up. As I wrote in a December 2009 Cato paper:
Governments are competing for investment and talent, which both tend to flow to jurisdictions where the rule of law is clear and abided; where there is greater certainty to the business and political climate; where the specter of asset expropriation is negligible; where physical and administrative infrastructure is in good shape; where the local work force is productive; where there are limited physical, political, and administrative friction.
This global competition in policy is a positive development. But U.S. policymakers cannot take for granted that traditional U.S. strengths will be enough. We have to compete and earn our share with good policies. The decisions made now with respect to policies on immigration, education, energy, trade, entitlements, taxes, and the role of government in managing the economy will determine the health, competitiveness, and relative significance of the U.S. economy in the decades ahead.
Since another hearing devoted to thanking these companies for their contributions to the U.S. economy is unlikely, perhaps Senator Levin should at least consider the perils of chasing away these golden geese.