Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Economic Dodgeball

This is long overdue:
President Obama yesterday announced a major offensive against businesses and wealthy individuals who avoid U.S. taxes by parking cash overseas, a battle he said would be fought with new tax laws, new reporting requirements and an army of 800 new IRS agents.

During an event at the White House, Obama said his proposal would raise $210 billion over the next decade and make good on his campaign pledge to eliminate tax advantages for companies that ship jobs abroad.

"I want to see our companies remain the most competitive in the world. But the way to make sure that happens is not to reward our companies for moving jobs off our shores or transferring profits to overseas tax havens," Obama said, flanked by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman.

The nation's largest business groups immediately assailed the proposal, arguing that it would subject them to far higher taxes than their foreign competitors must pay and ultimately endanger U.S. jobs. Key Democrats were cool to the plan, and said Obama's ideas should be considered as part of a broader effort to streamline the nation's complex corporate tax code.

It's about time, says me.

The logic is very simple: if you incorporate in the largest economy on the planet and do not move your entire operation overseas (including the executive suites), then you should be subject to US tax on your income.

If you live in the United States and are a United States citizen, then you should be subject to United States tax on your income.

Period. End of discussion.

For far too long it's been way too easy for corporations and people to shelter income by offshoring it. That is, set up a foreign subsidiary (or bank account) and conduct business under that guise. You were exempt from paying tax on any of that income until you repatriated it.

Bollocks. There's a clear economic benefit from that income, even if it remains overseas, in terms of stock price and annual results. So either one of two things must happen: either that income doesn't count towards your annual results, or you owe taxes on it.

For you lay folks out there, please understand that there is little connection between a company's annual income as reported to shareholders and what it claims on taxes. This move is a major step towards what should be the ultimate goal: if you claim earnings to the public, then you owe taxes on those earnings and you should not be able to manipulate your taxable income so easily.

After all, if I tried to shelter American income offshore, I'd be hauled before a Tax Court in no time. But MicroSoft or ExxonMobil or Halliburton can pretty much with a straight face claim American income for the benefit of their shareholders and stock price, but suddenly hold out empty pockets for the tax man.

That's not right and it's not fair and must change. So kudos to President Obama for doing the right thing.