It’s amazing what you can learn from research. Recently, the Brookings Institution took note of the oft-made assertion that the corporate tax rate in the U.S. (at 35%) is too high. The usual response is to point out that 35% may be the statutory rate, but many of our largest and most profitable corporations take advantage of tax breaks that substantially reduce–or even eliminate–federal taxes.
This report, however, looked at a different issue.
Corporations used to be the dominant form in which business was done. Partnerships and other “pass through” entities–so named because the income “passes through” and is taxed as the partners’– were far fewer. In 1980, only 20.7% of all business income was earned by pass-through entities; in 2011, the share had grown to 54.2%.
So a band of number-crunching economists at the U.S. Treasury and some academic partners, with access to far more data than outside researchers can see, set out to answer two simple questions: Who is getting all this partnership income? And what tax rate do they pay? They offered their answer Thursday in a paper presented at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference in Washington.
The findings are significant. And troubling.
*Pass-through business income is even more concentrated among the richest Americans than traditional corporate profits. “Overall, 69% of pass-through income earned by individuals accrues to the top-1%. Corporate income is similarly concentrated, but other business income (typically considered very concentrated) is substantially less concentrated.
* The average federal income tax rate paid by individuals who report pass-through business income was 19% in 2011. In part, that’s because so much of that income is considered capital gains or dividends, which are taxed at preferential rates.
* Across all business entities except for sole proprietorships, the average tax rate of U.S. business income in 2011 was 24.3%, they estimate. That’s lower than is often assumed in debates over corporate tax reform.
* “The migration of business activity out of the C-corporate sector and into the pass-through sector has likely substantially reduced U.S. tax revenue,” the economists conclude. If pass-through activity had remained at the (low) level of the 1980s, then the average tax rate on total U.S. business income in 2011 would have been approximately 28% rather than 24%, and tax revenue would have been at least $100 billion higher.
Who was it who used to say “A billion here, a billion there–pretty soon, you’re talking real money”?