Several American corporations are using a tax loophole scheme called “inversion” to get out of being American corporations obligated to pay American corporate tax rates. They buy or merge with a non-U.S. corporation (usually located in a tax haven), pretend they are a subsidiary to that corporation and renounce their U.S. “citizenship.”
That’s almost the only thing that changes. Their U.S. executives, employees, facilities and customers remain where they are, along with the benefits and protections they get from our courts, education system, military, infrastructure and all the other things we pay for through taxes. They just stop paying various taxes to help pay for those things.
Walgreens announced today that they will not “invert” and become a non-U.S. corporation. (And their stock tumbled as the bailed-out “patriots” on Wall Street heard the news.) Walgreens’ decision follows the collection of more than 160,000 signatures on a “Tell Walgreens to stay in the USA!” petition organized by a coalition of progressive organizations demanding that Walgreens remain a U.S. corporation.
But that announcement is just one victory in what has to be a continuing campaign to make sure corporations honor their obligations to America and pay their share of the cost for the things that enable them to prosper in America.
At The Daily Beast Monday, Jonathan Alter wrote about this “corporate desertion.” In “The United States Needs Corporate ‘Loyalty Oaths’,” Alter writes that “…it’s time for red-blooded Americans to take matters into our own hands. My answer is to make every corporation sign something.” Alter suggests “… a “non-desertion agreement” with the John Hancock of every board member and CEO in the United States.”
If boards thought for even a second about the long-term interests of their companies, they would summon their lawyers and sign. It’s protection against the risks of resurgent nationalism that could strip them of the many advantages (indirect government subsidies, easy access to American markets) that they currently enjoy.
Alter points out that the president can just do this today with an executive order for corporations that receive federal contracts:
“The president should issue an executive order that says any company that wants to keep its federal contracts must sign a new-fangled NDA. It’s reasonable to expect most federal contractors to be American companies. Obama has already used that leverage to raise the minimum wage for companies doing business with the government and, in a little-noticed move, to force government contractors to pay their suppliers on time.
This executive order would get the attention of major corporations, most of which receive federal contracts.”
The Benefits And Protections Corporations Get
Corporations themselves are not the problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, as long as we understand what they are and are not. A corporation is just a tool – a way to get something done. A corporation really is just a legal contract – entirely a creation of government (We the People) – a legal form of business organization that allows multiple investors to aggregate funds in order to accomplish projects that would otherwise be difficult to get done, except by governments. (It takes a huge investment to build a factory, buy the equipment and supplies, and hire the people required to make automobiles, trains, or other goods. The corporate form of a business enables this aggregation of funds from multiple investors.)
Where our relationship with corporations goes wrong is in our understanding of what they are and what they are for. They are neither good nor bad, they can’t be; they are not sentient entities that have morals or “decide to do things.” A corporation is just a contract between investors. A chair or hammer can’t decide things, and neither can a corporation. It is the people who manage the corporations that decide to do things, not the corporation.
Alter writes of the advantages that corporations currently enjoy. They are granted these advantages and benefits because we – through our government – have decided to let groups of investors have them. We did this in order to better accomplish those things that we want to get done. So corporations get many benefits and protections, including (but not limited to):
- Corporations can raise and concentrate money. Corporations can add new investors, issue stock and borrow. Also the corporation’s stock can be traded, providing liquidity.
- Corporations provide limited liability. The personal assets of the shareholders of a corporation are protected from the corporations debts and liabilities. A shareholder doesn’t have to come up with money to cover what the company might owe from borrowing or from a legal penalty or fine. Shareholders also are not criminally liable for the things the corporation might do.
- Corporations get special tax treatment. They pay lower tax rates than other kinds of “persons.” They get all kinds of tax deductions, subsidies, exclusions, etc. that regular persons do not. A huge benefit and protection shareholders of corporations get is something called the “capital gains tax rate.” When one of these owners of corporate stock sells the stock the profits from that sale are not taxed at the same rate as the income of working people. That sale is called a “capital gain.” (That tax rate just went from 15 percent to 20 percent as part of President Obama’s budget compromise.) The reason that the wealthiest people get most of their income from capital gains is because the capital gains tax rate is lower – and the reason the capital gains tax rate is lower is because the wealthiest people get most of their income from capital gains. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
- Corporations can own property in their own name, including shares of other corporations. Even though they are not “people” we let them “own” things. This enables a certain level of “hidden” ownership of things.
- Corporations live forever. They survive aside from the lives of the shareholders.
For The Benefit Of We The People?
We the People allow the corporate form to exist and grant these benefits and advantages to corporations because it enables the aggregation of funds from multiple investors to help accomplish those things we believe these corporations can do for us. We the People grant them special benefits, such as tax breaks, and in exchange we are supposed to get certain things back from this deal, beginning with well-made goods and high-quality services, good-paying jobs with benefits, and most importantly a share of the proceeds – taxes – to use to run our society, maintain and improve our infrastructure, educate ourselves, and all the other things We the People established our government for. In other words, this is supposed to be about making our lives better.
Why else would We the People make laws that allow this business form and grant these advantages and benefits to these corporations, unless it was for the benefit of We the People?
We the People create the fertile ground – education, infrastructure, courts, police and military protection, customers, etc. – for these corporations to thrive and We the People are supposed to reap the harvest.
We Get In Trouble When We Misunderstand What Corporations Are For
These advantages and benefits are supposedly granted in order to advance our – We the People’s – interests in getting certain things done and providing us with certain benefits, period. It is when we misunderstand what a corporation is that trouble begins.
One example of this trouble is that many people mistakenly believe that shareholders “own” a corporation. In fact, shareholders only have a contractual agreement related to the value of the stock. A corporation has no “owners.” It is just a contract, an understanding, a piece of paper.
Another example of the trouble that can occur from misunderstanding what a corporation is comes from the mistaken belief that the purpose of a corporation is to make money – and that there is a corresponding rule that they are required to “maximize shareholder value.” In fact, a corporation exists to allow investors to pool funds to accomplish certain tasks that benefit us. Their purpose is to better enable the accomplishment of those tasks.
Just Who Are We Talking About?
Unfortunately, public understanding of corporations has migrated from the original purpose of this form of business organization. Why is this? The answer might come from understanding who benefits from owning shares in corporations. This chart from the 2011 post “Nine Pictures Of The Extreme Income/Wealth Gap” explains who we are really talking about when we talk about corporations today:
The top 1 percent own 50.9 percent of all stocks, bonds, and mutual fund assets. The top 10 percent own 90.3 percent. The bottom 50 percent of us own 0.5 percent. That’s one half of one percent.
So Here We Are
We have drifted very far from our understanding of the relationship that is supposed to exist between We the People, our government, and the businesses that our government allow to exist. Why would we pass laws that set up corporations and grant them special benefits, except to make our lives better? How have we allowed these legal constructs called corporations (and the people behind them) to gain so much power that they can tell us what to do, and tell us they are going to just leave the country if we don’t let them have their way?
If We the People are not benefiting from the existence of these things called corporations, maybe it is time for We the People to put a stop to the special advantages and benefits they get. Why should the 1 percent enjoy limited liability, special tax breaks, use of courts, and police and military protection if We the People are not getting well-made goods and high-quality services, well-paying jobs with good benefits, good schools and the rest of the things called for in the original bargain that created corporations in the first place?
This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.