Monday, August 18, 2014

Will: In lame defense of tax inversions

In defense of foreign tax inversions by U.S. corporations, conservative George Will is obliged to argue that company managers have an obligation to company shareholders to maximize returns. Yet this is an assumed obligation, not a legal obligation, and not necessarily a moral one either, as the case of social enterprises proves. 

Moreover, I haven't heard about any shareholders' meetings where the crowd clamored for the corporation to abandon America and set up shop in Ireland or the Bahamas. Or about a Wall Street corporate analyst who ever urged such? Have you?  

The public's urging corporations like Walgreen's to remain in the U.S. and pay taxes where they actually operate and retain their headquarters is likewise a moral argument. Which is a stronger moral argument, patriotism or maximizing shareholder value? That's for individual companies' directors to decide; but nobody should dismiss patriotism as irrelevant. Nor should conservatives like Will, so fond of moralizing in other contexts, criticize our leaders such as President Obama for first exercising moral suasion to curb tax inversions before resorting to the big hammers of legislation or executive orders.

Next, Will labels the "race to the bottom" (something I have written about often) as "entrepreneurial federalism." This term is the acme of goobledygook: take two unrelated words that mean something, cram them together, and forfeit the meaning of both. Conservatives like Will assure us all the time that government cannot be entrepreneurial; that's business's turf. And federalism refers to various forms of political organization where national sub-units are subordinated to the national government in some matters, but retain their right to act freely in others. Federalism has nothing to do with states' respective policies and incentives meant to attract capital investment; nor does federalism refer to interstate economic competition. So, put these two terms together and you get... nothing. (Tom Friedman probably wishes he'd thought of it first.)

Also, Will summarily dismisses the idea that corporations that get rich partly thanks to U.S. roads, ports and other infrastructure, the U.S. legal system, patent protection, U.S. trade negotiations, not to mention U.S. public schools that educate their workers to be the most productive in the world, have some moral obligation to the U.S. to pay taxes or give something back. Corporations aren't people! say progressives. So Will replies, Then non-people cannot have any moral obligations!  Such petulance is typical of Will. 

Moral obligations are of the company's directors, primarily, and secondarily of the shareholders to keep the directors in line. Moral obligations are not necessarily legal obligations. Whereas the Citizens United and the Hobby Lobby cases turned on whether corporations had some of the same legal (First Amendment) rights as people: to make political donations and practice religion, respectively. Morality and law should not be conflated.

Beyond that, Will unwittingly offers up two contradictions in his own op-ed, and perfectly illustrates why the U.S. cannot win the race to the bottom. 

First, he tells the story how Airbus located a subsidiary in Alabama, a right-to-work state, "because capital, being mobile, goes where it is wanted and stays where it is treated well." Will picked an unfortunate example, because Airbus, as a consortium of European aviation firms, is heavily dependent on EU subsidies and contracts for its survival. Moreover it is headquartered in France. And Airbus employs over 60,000 workers in pro-union, "socialistic" Europe.  So Airbus would never dare to "invert" outside the EU to win some tax benefits! Obviously, multinational companies make their plans based on much more than tax rates and cost of wages.

Second, he tells the story how Maytag moved its production from Illinois to Mexico because, allegedly, Illinois was not a right-to-work (read: anti-union) state. Yet he doesn't attempt to explain why Maytag didn't move to a right-to-work state instead. Because he can't. Because no matter how low wages and taxes will be in Alabama or elsewhere, they will always be lower in some poorer, developing nation.  The U.S., the largest economy in the world, cannot hope to attract and retain businesses by trying to be "poorer" than poorest nations; or lower its taxes to the rates of tiny islands like Bermuda or New Zealand.  That's idiotic. Yet that's just what conservatives like Will advise: "the sensible corporate tax rate would be zero." Whoa! "This is so because," explains Will, "corporations do not pay taxes, they collect them, necessarily passing on the burden as a cost of doing business."

Hmm... I suppose that likewise, ordinary citizens do not actually pay taxes; they simply collect them from their employers, passing on the burden as a cost of staying alive.

Moreover, the Maytag example betrays Will's muddled thinking: he starts out discussing tax inversions, then switches to unions and labor. These are completely separate issues! Indeed, Walgreen's and other tax inverters have not publicized any plans to shut down their U.S. locations; they simply wish to re-locate on paper, for the tax benefit. And in fact Whirlpool Corporation, which owns Maytag, is based in Benton Harbor, Michigan, not Bermuda or Ireland.

Will's lame defense of tax inversions betrays an inverted worldview unfortunately shared by many conservatives: Government is but a burden and an annoyance barely tolerated by corporations, for whom the nation exists.  

This is not to say that the nation exists to serve the government. No.  Even so, I'll put Big Government above Hobby Lobby, Walgreen's or the Kochs any day, because at least I have some say in what my government does; and government is legally accountable to all its citizens, not just the wealthy.

By George Will
August 15, 2014 | Washington Post

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