What were they thinking? The US Treasury Department removed from the Treasury website a 2012 Treasury staff technical paper which reported on an improved approach to distributing the corporate income tax. (Kudos to Richard Rubin of the WSJ for breaking the story.) Instead of assuming that 100% of the corporate income tax (CIT) is borne by capital owners in the form of lower capital returns, the paper estimated that some of the CIT is borne by workers in the form of lower wages or reduced employment opportunities.
The analysis estimated that about one-fifth of the CIT is borne by workers. That apparently is contrary to the belief of the current Treasury Secretary who cites other empirical studies that workers could bear 70% or more of the CIT. Some academic studies have claimed that workers bear more than 100% of the CIT due to significant shifts in global capital. The Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office have been using estimates of 20-25% shifting to workers in their analyses.
If current Treasury officials have information to improve the distribution of CIT across households, then they should publish that analysis so it can be reviewed, debated and critiqued. Removing the 2012 analysis from the list of Treasury Office of Tax Analysis technical studies does not help the policy debate about this important issue. The 2012 analysis included the usual disclaimer: The papers are works in progress and subject to revision. Views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent official Treasury positions or policy. OTA Technical Papers are distributed in order to document OTA analytic methods and data and invite discussion and suggestions for revision and improvement. The analysis remains available as a publication in the National Tax Journal.
Any empirical analysis can be critiqued and improved on, so instead of trying to hide the prior analysis, Treasury should provide its current analysis. The 2012 analysis relies heavily on a distinction between "normal" and "supernormal" returns, which a prior blog questions. The analysis assumes that "supernormal" returns are borne 100% by capital owners, despite empirical research that average effective tax rates, which fall on "supernormal" returns, affect foreign direct investment, and thus could result in lower capital investment in the US with a negative effect on total US wage compensation. The distributional effect of any proposal could depend on the specific policy changes. Changes in average effective tax rates (i.e. lower statutory tax rates) have a larger effect on foreign direct investment than changes in marginal tax rates (i.e. expensing) on investment. (DeMooij/Ederveen 2008). The distributional effects likely differ between small very open economies and the US.
Removing the technical working paper from the Treasury website has given the analysis more prominence. That is probably a positive development, since distributional consequences should be weighed against economic growth, economic efficiency and simplicity.
Distributing the CIT among households is an improvement from the last US tax reform in 1986. At that time, uncertainty about how to distribute the CIT meant it was not included in the distributional tables. That is why President Reagan's 1985 tax reform proposal could be revenue neutral while showing every income group getting a sizable tax cut. See 1985 table below. The 1986 tax act was revenue neutral, but raised CIT revenues to finance individual income tax reductions.
Let's have an open and honest debate about the distributional burden of the corporate income tax, recognizing that the economics profession is still uncertain about its exact shifting to capital owners, workers and consumers.