Thursday, June 26, 2008

Who Pays the Corporate Tax?

Some time ago, I promised a commenter I would write up something on the incidence of the corporate income tax. The Tax Policy Center saved me the trouble with a post today which crisply summarizes the issue:

Clearly, somebody must pay the tax. It could fall on shareholders, employees, customers, or a combination of the three. It could even affect asset income or wages more broadly, cutting returns for investors who own non-stock assets or reducing compensation for workers at firms outside the corporate sector.

Economists agree on the incidence of some taxes—the individual income tax falls fully on people who earn the taxed income, for example—but reach different conclusions on others, including the corporate income tax. For a long time, the conventional wisdom held that the corporate tax burden landed on all owners of capital, not just corporate stockholders. Some—but not all—models show that, under certain circumstances, much of the tax can fall on workers. TPC follows the Congressional Budget Office’s practice of assigning corporate tax incidence to all owners of capital in proportion to their income from capital.

The CBO justifies its assumption as follows:
Less agreement exists on the incidence of corporate income taxes. Firms pay the tax on their net profits according to a schedule of four rates that reaches 35 percent for annual taxable income over $10 million. Ultimately, however, that tax is borne by households, either as higher prices for the goods they buy or lower income from work or investments. Economists disagree on whether people bear the tax as shareholders in corporations, owners of all capital assets, employees, or consumers. Nonetheless, a survey of the economics literature on the issue indicates a dominant view that the corporate income tax reduces the return to all capital, and thus the burden of the tax falls on all owners of capital assets. Accordingly, CBO allocates corporate income taxes as both income and tax liabilities to households in proportion to their income from interest, dividends, rents, and capital gains.
Here's another post from TPC describing a conference on the topic, highlighting the fact that there is much disagreement. Here is a 1996 CBO paper by EconomistMom Diane Rogers which reviews the literature up to that point on the topic. I have tried unsuccessfully to find information on either the TPC or CBO website spelling out exactly what the CBO assumption means for the incidence of the corporate tax. We know that ownership of capital assets (and thus the corporate tax incidence, under the CBO assumption) is concentrated among the wealthy, but how concentrated? Can anyone point me to some data on this?


IM said...

Here's a good article by Mankiw on why the corporate tax is problematic.


MattYoung said...

I also am with Mankiw on this, in equilibrium. The relative gain by corporations from government services is not captured well with national corporate, one size fits all tax.