House Speaker Paul Ryan gets innovative in spreading misleading international tax comparisons

During a town hall on Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan trotted out a standard and misleading talking point, claiming that the international competitiveness of U.S. corporations is damaged by an allegedly too-high corporate income tax rate.

“I was just meeting with a father/son business in—I was doing office hours in Janesville today. I met with a father/son business in—down in south central Wisconsin. I don’t want to tell their names because I don’t want to, you know, get them grief. But down in Genoa City, they have an electricity business. They make electrical parts for Snap-on and other companies.

Their biggest competitor is Canada, a company in Canada. Their tax rate—they’re a corporation, small business, 35 percent. You know what the Canadian tax rate is? Fifteen percent. Eight out of 10 businesses in America file their taxes as people, as individuals. We call them, like, Subchapter S corporations, LLCs. Their top effective tax rate is 44.6 percent. Canadians are at 15 percent. The Irish at 12.5 percent. China, 25 percent.”

As I noted a couple weeks ago, the most common version of this talking point just compares the statutory U.S. corporate tax rate to the statutory corporate rate in other countries. This is already awfully misleading because what corporations actually pay (their effective rate) is far less than the 35 percent statutory rate, thanks to a corporate tax code riddled with loopholes. It’s hard to come up with an exact number, but studies have found effective federal corporate tax rates ranging between 12.5 and 19.4 percent—a far cry from 35 percent.

That more-common version of this talking point is bad enough, but Speaker Ryan goes on to muddy the water even further. He notes that his example business pays its taxes at the individual level. These “pass-through businesses,” whether large or small, pay zero in business or corporate income taxes. Instead, these businesses’ owners just pay tax on the income they receive from business operations through the individual tax code. This means that what Ryan is comparing at the end of his statement is the top U.S. individual tax rate (paid by less than 1 percent of taxpayers) and the Canadian corporate tax rate. This isn’t apples to oranges wrong, it’s apples to bicycles wrong.

Canada has pass-through businesses as well. As in the United States, income from these businesses is not taxed at all at the business level, and is instead “passed-through” to the owners who pay their individual rates on the income they receive from business operations. Which means that the correct comparison is the U.S. individual tax rate and the Canadian individual tax rate.

In Canada, the average combined federal and provincial top individual income tax rate is 50 percent. The Tax Foundation report cited by PolitiFact Wisconson puts the U.S. average top marginal individual rate at 47.2 percent. That is, on average, a U.S. sole proprietorship faces an almost 3 percentage point lower top marginal tax rate than its Canadian counterpart.

But just because it’s true doesn’t make it convenient for the cause of trying to bamboozle people into thinking that the United States taxes corporations too heavily. Sadly, this cause has been well-served by Ryan’s deception, as PolitiFact Wisconsin has somewhat bizarrely rated a similar previous claim by Ryan “true.” As debate over tax cuts heats up in coming weeks, we really need to start policing clear falsehoods more effectively.