I’ve said before something along the lines that the filthy, stinking rich will not notice and they won’t.
“If you paid $120 for a pair of Nike Air Force 1 shoes, you paid more to Nike than it paid in federal income taxes over the past 3 years,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders.
For millions of ordinary people in the U.S., 2020 was a painful year in which loved ones and jobs were lost as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating economic repercussions. But for many of the country’s major corporations, last year was a lucrative one—particularly if they were among the 55 companies that paid $0 in federal income taxes on a combined $40.5 billion in profits, as a new study shows.
“We should be asking bigger questions about a tax system so flawed that it asks next to nothing of profitable corporations that derive great benefit from our economy.”
—Matthew Gardner, ITEP
Released Friday, the report is based on the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) analysis of 2020 financial reports filed by the country’s largest publicly traded corporations.
Instead of paying a collective $8.5 billion in federal income taxes on last year’s profits of $40.5 billion, as mandated by the statutory 21% rate, the 55 companies exploited preexisting loopholes and pandemic-related tax breaks to reduce their tax bills to zero.
Not only did these corporations secure a zero-tax liability, they received a collective $3.5 billion in rebates, bringing the total amount of lost federal revenue to $12 billion. And 26 of them haven’t paid a dime for the past three years, a time period in which the GOP’s “morally and economically obscene” tax cuts for corporations and wealthy Americans have been in effect.
“We should continue to call on policymakers to address the gaping corporate tax loopholes that make this kind of tax avoidance possible,” said Matthew Gardner, a senior fellow at ITEP and an author of the report.
“But in a pandemic year when so many small businesses shuttered and millions of people lost their economic livelihoods,” he added, “we should be asking bigger questions about a tax system so flawed that it asks next to nothing of profitable corporations that derive great benefit from our economy—in good and bad economic times.”
In the report, Gardner characterized the latest example of tax dodging by profitable companies as part of “a decades-long trend of corporate tax avoidance by the biggest U.S. corporations [that] appears to be the product of long-standing tax breaks preserved or expanded by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) as well as the CARES Act tax breaks enacted in the spring of 2020.”
The report includes a table listing the profits and effective tax rates of all 55 companies.
Some publicly traded corporations that paid $0 in federal income taxes in the most recent fiscal year, such as Zoom, are not included because they are not yet part of the S&P 500 or Fortune 500. But many of the companies—which represent a variety of industries, including technology, utilities, manufacturing, banking, agriculture, and others—are household names.
Some of the most well-known brands, according to ITEP’s analysis, include the following:
- Food conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland enjoyed $438 million of U.S. pretax income last year and received a federal tax rebate of $164 million.
- The cable TV provider Dish Network paid no federal income taxes on $2.5 billion of U.S. income in 2020.
- The delivery giant FedEx zeroed out its federal income tax on $1.2 billion of U.S. pretax income last year and received a rebate of $230 million.
- The shoe manufacturer Nike didn’t pay a dime of federal income tax on almost $2.9 billion of U.S. pretax income in 2020, instead enjoying a $109 million tax rebate.
- The software company Salesforce avoided all federal income taxes last year on $2.6 billion of U.S. income.
As Gardner wrote, “the biggest and most profitable U.S. corporations have found ways to shelter their profits from federal income taxation” for decades, which ITEP has documented “since the early years of the Reagan administration’s misguided tax-cutting experiment.”
“A widely cited ITEP analysis of an eight-year period (2008 through 2015) confirmed that federal tax avoidance remained rampant before the TCJA,” but now that “most corporations [are] reporting their third year of results under the new corporate tax laws pushed through by President Donald Trump in 2017, it is crystal clear that the TCJA failed to address loopholes that enable tax dodging—and may have made it worse,” he added.
According to ITEP, “the companies used a combination of old and new tax breaks to secure a zero-tax obligation.” Gardner documented the “familiar” tactics that corporations used to slash their effective federal tax rate on corporate profits:
- More than a dozen used a tax break for executive stock options to sharply reduce their income taxes last year;
- At least half a dozen companies used the federal research and experimentation credit to reduce their income taxes in 2020;
- Tax breaks for renewable energy are part of the tax avoidance scheme for several utility companies and
- A provision in the TCJA allowing companies to immediately write off capital investments—the most extreme version of accelerated depreciation—helped more than a dozen companies reduce their income tax substantially.
In addition, Gardner noted, there is “a new factor driving down corporate tax bills: the CARES Act, ostensibly designed to help people and businesses to stay afloat during the pandemic.”
While “tax law previously allowed companies to carry back losses to offset profits in two prior years,” Gardner wrote that “the TCJA bars companies from doing this (although it still allows companies to carry losses forward to offset profits in future years). However, the CARES Act temporarily restored companies’ ability to carry back losses and, incredibly, is more generous than the pre-TCJA rules.”
ITEP noted that “the provision’s generosity (the act retroactively loosens rules even for losses in years before the pandemic) provides a ripe breeding ground for corporate tax accounting gimmicks.” As Gardner pointed out, “some companies used a CARES Act provision to ‘carry back’ 2018 or 2019 losses to offset profits they reported in prior years, resulting in a rebate that reduced their 2020 taxes, in some cases to less than nothing.”
These 7 ways of taxing the rich would generate more than $6 trillion over 10 years.byRobert Reic
Here are seven necessary ways to tax the rich.
First: Repeal the Trump tax cuts.
It’s no secret Trump’s giant tax cut was a giant giveaway to the rich. 65 percent of its benefits go to the richest fifth, 83 percent to the richest 1 percent over a decade. In 2018, for the first time on record, the 400 richest Americans paid a lower effective tax rate than the bottom half. Repealing the Trump tax cut’s benefits to the wealthy and big corporations, as Joe Biden has proposed, will raise an estimated $500 billion over a decade.
Second: Raise the tax rate on those at the top.
In the 1950s, the highest tax rate on the richest Americans was over 90 percent. Even after tax deductions and credits, they still paid over 40 percent. But since then, tax rates have dropped dramatically. Today, after Trump’s tax cut, the richest Americans pay less than 26 percent, including deductions and credits. And this rate applies only to dollars earned in excess of $523,601. Raising the marginal tax rate by just one percent on the richest Americans would bring in an estimated $123 billion over 10 years.
Third: A wealth tax on the super-wealthy.
Wealth is even more unequal than income. The richest 0.1% of Americans have almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent put together. Just during the pandemic, America’s billionaires added $1.3 trillion to their collective wealth. Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax would charge 2 percent on wealth over $50 million and 3 percent on wealth over $1 billion. It would only apply to about 75,000 U.S. households, fewer than 0.1% of taxpayers. Under it, Jeff Bezos would owe $5.7 billion out of his $185 billion fortune—less than half what he made in one day last year. The wealth tax would raise $2.75 trillion over a decade, enough to pay for universal childcare and free public college with plenty left over.
Fourth: A transactions tax on trades of stock.
The richest 1 percent owns 50 percent of the stock market. A tiny 0.1 percent tax on financial transactions—just $1 per $1,000 traded—would raise $777 billion over a decade. That’s enough to provide housing vouchers to all homeless people in America more than 12 times over.
Fifth: End the “stepped-up cost basis” loophole.
The heirs of the super-rich pay zero capital gains taxes on huge increases in the value of what they inherit because of a loophole called the stepped-up basis. At the time of death, the value of assets is “stepped up” to their current market value—so a stock that was originally valued at, say, one dollar when purchased but that’s worth $1,000 when heirs receive it, escapes $999 of capital gains taxes. This loophole enables huge and growing concentrations of wealth to be passed from generation to generation without ever being taxed. Eliminating this loophole would raise $105 billion over a decade.
Six: Close other loopholes for the super-rich.
For example, one way the managers of real estate, venture capital, private equity and hedge funds reduce their taxes is the carried interest loophole, which allows them to treat their income as capital gains rather than ordinary wage income. That means they get taxed at the lower capital gains rate rather than the higher tax rate on incomes. Closing this loophole is estimated to raise $14 billion over a decade.
Seven: Increase the IRS’s funding so it can audit rich taxpayers.
Because the IRS has been so underfunded, millionaires are far less likely to be audited than they used to be. As a result, the IRS fails to collect a huge amount of taxes from wealthy taxpayers. Collecting all unpaid federal income taxes from the richest 1 percent would generate at least $1.75 trillion over the decade. So fully fund the IRS.
Together, these 7 ways of taxing the rich would generate more than $6 trillion over 10 years—enough to tackle the great needs of the nation. As inequality has exploded, our unjust tax system has allowed the richest Americans to cheat their way out of paying their fair share.
It’s not radical to rein in this irresponsibility. It’s radical to let it continue.
Robert Reich, is the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. His book include: “Aftershock” (2011), “The Work of Nations” (1992), “Beyond Outrage” (2012) and, “Saving Capitalism” (2016). He is also a founding editor of The American Prospect magazine, former chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, “Inequality For All.” Reich’s newest book is “The Common Good” (2019). He’s co-creator of the Netflix original documentary “Saving Capitalism,” which is streaming now.