Myths and Facts about Corporate Taxes, Part 1: Do American Corporations Pay the Highest Taxes in the World?

It’s become conventional wisdom that American corporate tax rates are the highest in the developed world, leaving American businesses at a competitive disadvantage—and that the only solution is fundamental tax reform (a phrase used by both Republicans and Democrats). Just yesterday, the Washington Post reported offhandedly that U.S. businesses “currently labor under the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.” The fact is there are a lot of myths about the corporate tax code—myths that are repeated by corporations that stand to benefit from them. So, let’s look at the facts.

Myth: American corporations pay more in taxes than their competitors in any other country.

Fact: Any claim that the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the world should be accompanied by a clarification that the rate American companies actually pay, on average, is comparable to what their foreign competitors pay.

Yes, the tax rates on the books (the “statutory” rates) in the United States are high relative to our international peers, but the U.S. corporate tax code has become so riddled with loopholes—and American corporations so adept at exploiting them—that the total amount of taxes actually paid by U.S. corporations (the “effective” corporate tax rate) is far less.

The Government Accountability Office found that large, profitable American corporations pay an effective rate of less than 13 percent in U.S. federal taxes; when state and foreign taxes are included, the rate only increases to 17 percent—a far cry from the statutory 39 percent. Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service found that the effective rate here is nearly identical to the weighted average of corporate taxes in the world’s other most developed economies. (EPI’s Thomas Hungerford found the same thing.)

Despite this, in yesterday’s Washington Post article, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was quoted complaining that “we have the most uncompetitive tax system in the developed world,” and making a call for lower rates—even though AT&T paid an effective rate of only 6.5 percent between 2008 and 2012.

While the corporate tax code is far from perfect—all of the exemptions, deductions, credits, and loopholes cause economic distortions and are detrimental to the idea that taxpaying companies  across industries should be treated similarly—the idea that the U.S. collects punitive levels of corporate taxes that leave businesses here un-competitive is simply untrue. The key exhibit here is simply the fact that American corporations have seen record after-tax profits since the Great Recession. Tax reform must not plunge our corporate code into a race to the bottom simply because we take Corporate America’s word for it that U.S. companies are at a global disadvantage.

If reporters or companies lean on the tired trope that American companies are burdened by the highest taxes in the world, they should remember that the “competitiveness” argument about our tax code is “largely fact free.”