Thinking About Death and Taxes on April 15

“’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes” -Christopher Bullock, The Cobler of Preston, 1716

“Things as certain as Death and Taxes” -Daniel Defoe, The History of the Devil, 1727

“[N]othing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” -Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 1789

Every year on Tax Day, there are always jokes about death and taxes, and questions on which one is preferable. (For example, recall the character in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series—Hotblack Desiato—who spent a year dead for tax purposes.) Almost no one, however, talks about the group of taxpayers who worry about neither death nor taxes: corporations.

By the end of the day, almost every individual taxpayer will be reminded of the certainty of taxes (while death has been postponed for another year). 30 percent of taxpayers fall into the 15 percent tax bracket. They can expect to pay about $3,000 in federal income taxes, on an adjusted gross income of almost $50,000. (This does not count the all the other taxes paid such as Social Security payroll taxes and state and local income taxes.) These taxpayers face a 15 percent statutory tax rate and paid a bit over 6 percent of their AGI in federal income taxes.

But corporations do not worry about death or taxes, since they do not face the certainty of death and often do not pay taxes. Let’s deal with death first. There are many corporations, some of which have been around for a while and others are relatively new. General Electric has been around since 1892, while Facebook has been around since only 2004. There are U.S. companies that have been around longer than the United States. (The oldest industrial corporation in the world—Stora Enso—has been around since 1288.) Indeed, one of the legal hallmarks of a corporation is the “continuity of life,” which means that the corporation does not necessarily end with bankruptcy, death of an owner, or other change. Corporations do come and go, but there is no presumption that a corporation has to eventually die.

Now let’s turn to taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice has determined that 26 large corporations earned $170 billion in profits between 2008 and 2012, but paid no taxes; as a matter of fact they received refunds of over $8 billion (one of these corporations is GE). These corporations paid negative 5.1 percent of their income in taxes! Another 67 corporations earned $465 billion over the same period and paid $7 billion in taxes yielding a 1.5 percent tax rate.

Something is wrong when 26 corporations with average earnings of $6.5 billion literally pay less in income taxes (individually and collectively) than a typical working American earning less than $50,000. And another 67 pay a lower tax rate. These corporations did all of this legally, many using tax provisions that facilitate moving their income to international tax havens where it is not taxed by anyone. The good news is many of these tax provisions are temporary and expired at the end of last year. The bad news is the Senate Finance committee voted earlier this month to extend these tax provisions for another two years. The really bad news is Chairman of the House Ways and Means committee Dave Camp wants to make these tax provisions a permanent part of the tax code. For many corporations, it appears that both life and not paying taxes are certain, and will likely remain so.