Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Corporations as persons and as taxpayers (not)

The primary reason that I think the legal decision to treat corporations as the equivalent of persons was wrong has to do with the reality that corporations can be immortal (or virtually immortal) can people die, science fiction notwithstanding.

There is interesting discussion in the US (e.g., "Report: Apple used subsidiaries to avoid $44 billion in U.S. taxes" from the Los Angeles Times, general discussion that the US corporate tax rate is "too high") and Europe (various studies of how corporations like Starbucks use financial engineering to shift revenues from countries like the UK, e.g., "Fresh questions for Amazon over pittance it pays in tax" and "Corporate taxation: Wake up and smell the coffee" from The Economist) that if only corporate tax rates were lower, corporations wouldn't try to game the system.

Image: UK Uncut protesters draw attention to tax avoidance by Starbucks and the impact of Government cuts on women in front of the branch of Starbucks in Vigo Street, Central London. From Demotix.

In the UK, not the US, there has been massive public outrage over the fact that many corporations are not paying taxes.  See "Poll suggests growing 'public outrage' over multinationals tax bills" from Tax Journal.

A letter writer to the Financial Times ("Attitudes to free riding, and not tax rates, must change") makes the best point, that UK corporate tax rates are 12 points lower than US taxes and corporations still game their taxes.  From the letter:

... makes a sensible argument for changing the US tax code. If it is overly complicated, reform may be justified. However, his argument that the solution is lower rates does not follow.

The UK corporate tax rate is around 12 percentage points lower than that in the US, but still companies in areas as diverse as internet retailing, web search and coffee shops put considerable effort into avoiding it. The corporate tax rate in Ireland is roughly 10 percentage points lower still, but again companies do their best to avoid paying even that.

Though companies benefit from state expenditure, there is a rational temptation to free-ride. This is the case irrespective of the rate. The problem is not tax rates but tax attitude. It is Mr Damodaran’s other statement, that paying tax “is in conflict with a company’s fiduciary duty to its shareholders”, that defines the problem. However, it is not clear that a company has such a fiduciary duty. ...

For what it's worth, US retailers have been doing similar kinds of financial engineering for years, in terms of how they structure leases, intellectual property like logos, etc., to reduce stated profits at the local store level.

And of course, corporations manage their tax obligations similarly, with two sets of books (which is legal) for general reporting and for tax reporting.

You can't argue that corporations are necessarily amoral, but there is no question that the motivations for corporations can be significantly different than from real people, which is another reason why corporations shouldn't be treated legally as people and able to use this fiction as a way to avoid disclosing a wide variety of their activities.

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At 10:40 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I'm sure you are familiar with Horwitz and the Transformation of American Law.

In term of the tax code, it is incredibly simple -- reduce/elimaate corporate taxes, raise the capital gains tax to the same as income, and remove debt as a deduction.

Except of course it isn't.

From a macro view, should we be moving back to an investment led growth phase? I think that is what Obama wants although he hasn't a clue on how to do it.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

am not familiar with this...

Horwitz and the Transformation of American Law.

one more thing I need to read.

At 12:15 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Yep, that one.

First book is the stonger one on "corporate personality". He is tied into a lot of legal theories, and the more theory he puts on the less useful the book.

And a useful ancedote to the railroad lovers in the hipster class.


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