The headline that grabs attention says that a vast number of US corporations pay absolutely no corporate taxes. Tim Worstall explains that this is quite true:
Timothy Taylor has a nice piece here on the subject:
More than 90 percent of businesses, representing more than one-third of all business activity, in the United States are structured as flow-through entities — businesses that do not pay the corporate income tax, but rather pass profits through to owners who pay tax under the individual income tax.
We have two (actually, more than two, but this is the distinction that matters to us here) forms of business ownership. The first is the C Corporation, what we all normally think of as a corporation. The second is an S corporation (in taxation, very like a partnership). And the important thing is that C corporations are the only ones that pay the corporate income tax. S corporations don’t: their owners pay individual income tax on the profits. So, if we saw a move from C to S corporations as the method of organisation then we’d see a reduction in corporate income tax paid. But not, possibly, a reduction in total tax paid on business profits.
And that is what seems to have happened at least in part:
Back in 1980, nearly 80% of business income went to “C” corporations–so named after the applicable part of the tax code that governs them–which are what most of us think of when we think of a “corporation.” Back then, the remaining 20% was almost all sole proprietorships, which were just taxed as individual income. …..(…)…But C corporations now account for only about 30% of all business income. The share going to sole proprietorships hasn’t changed much. But much more corporate income is going to partnership and S corporations….(…)…Back in the 1960s, the corporate income tax often collected 4-5% of GDP. Since about 1990, it has more commonly collected 1-2% of GDP. Part of the reason is that a smaller share of business income is flowing through the conventional C corporation form.
That really is a large part of the explanation. It’s not that business profits are not being taxed, it’s that they’re being taxed in a different way. And that explains much of the fall in the corporate income tax revenues: and all too few people are over on the other side looking at the increase in individual income tax payments stemming from corporate profits.
So a legal change has drawn a lot of corporations to change how they are structured, so that profits are taxable in the hands of their individual owners, rather than in the imaginary hands of the corporate person. And another US tax quirk explains even more of the headline:
There is another point to be made here, about how we measure the share of corporate profits in the US economy. This has very definitely risen, this is absolutely true. And the tax bill hasn’t, that’s also true. A goodly part of the explanation is the above, about C and S corporations. But there’s this one more thing. Profits in the US economy includes all profits made in the US, by both Americans and foreigners. But it also includes foreign profits made by US corporations. Those tens of billions being made abroad by Google and Apple, Microsoft, they’re all included in the US profit share. And as we also know, those foreign profits aren’t paying the US corporate income tax because, entirely legally, they’re being used overseas to reinvest in those foreign businesses. My stick my finger in the air estimate of the difference those profits make is about 2% of US GDP. Meaning that if we measure US profits as 10% of GDP, then look at tax payments, we’re only seeing the tax payments from 8% of GDP (before we even look at the C and S corporation thing).