Donald Trump today took to a podium in Indiana to wax poetic about all the ways in which his new tax plan will benefit us common folk. The plan promises to deliver “historic tax relief to the American people,” which is true — so long as you subscribe to the idea that corporations are people, like the American government does.
In reality, it’s lettuce on a shit sandwich, only now with added mayo to further extend the illusion of edibility.
At its surface, the plan sounds like a good idea: allow companies to bring funds held overseas back to the US at a decreased tax rate. Apple, for example, would bring back around $246 billion — around $60 billion of which is owed in taxes. We don’t have exact figures yet, but if we operate under the assumption of 10 percent — a figure Trump gave on the campaign trail — companies would save a bundle when you consider they’re currently on the hook for 35 percent.
For Apple, the benefit is clear: the company could now pay $20 billion in taxes instead of $60 billion (remember, these aren’t hard figures), and keep their cash on US soil. Tucking it away in the US, while once seen as a liability, could actually save the company money over the long term, especially as the EU continues to crack down on the practice of squirreling funds away in countries like Ireland.
The reality, though, isn’t that simple.
A 2011 Senate investigation found that approximately half of the income held overseas is invested in US treasuries or the US stock market. The funds are owned offshore but invested here, meaning: there’s no tangible benefit for the US economy to bring these funds back. For all intents and purposes, they’re already here.
And what Trump’s not telling us is that we’ve already been down this road.
In 2004, Congress attempted the same thing and saw an influx of $312 billion in gross revenue repatriated to the US. According to the Congressional Research Service, Congress’ nonpartisan think tank:
While empirical evidence is clear that this provision resulted in a significant increase in repatriated earnings, empirical evidence is unable to show a corresponding increase in domestic investment or employment.
But how can $312 billion not benefit the economy?
Well, most of these funds were distributed to shareholders as dividends, meaning — trickle down economics be damned — you never actually saw them. The think tank came to the conclusion that the 2004 program was “an ineffective means of increasing economic growth.”
But, on Trump’s watch at least, that’s not a good enough deterrent to keep us from trying it again.
And then there’s this, from The Wall Street Journal:
[The] transition could have some unintended consequences. Taxing illiquid assets at a lower rate could incentivize companies to spend their money in a foreign jurisdiction before the proposal passes and goes into effect, [tax practice leader at Ryan LLC, Ian] Boccaccio said.
If none of this managed to get your attention, I saved the best for last.
There’s a choice bit of language hiding in the new plan. If successful, Trump’s tax
avoidance plan would remove the burden of paying American taxes on profits booked offshore, in perpetuity — whether they repatriated the funds or not, according to Quartz.
Simply put, Apple, Nike, Google, and others can take advantage of the one-time tax break, pay its taxes at a reduced rate in the US, and then continue storing funds overseas indefinitely starting the following year. And this time, there would be no scrutiny from the US government; it’s actually a benefit written into the plan.
So if you’re keeping score at home, the US could benefit from an influx of cash one year (but probably won’t) and then tell companies the one-time gift was enough, leaving them to seek shelter overseas in tax-friendly locales. The move has the potential to be disastrous to the US economy, regardless of what Trump would have you believe.
This is a problem that can’t be solved with a quick fix.
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