The 57,000 Page Tax Return — Marginal Revolution

[General Electric] reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, and said $5.1 billion of the total came from its operations in the United States. Its American tax bill? None. In fact, G.E. claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.

G.E.’s giant tax department, led by a bow-tied former Treasury official named John Samuels, is often referred to as the world’s best tax law firm. Indeed, the company’s slogan “Imagination at Work” fits this department well. The team includes former officials not just from the Treasury, but also from the I.R.S. and virtually all the tax-writing committees in Congress.

General Electric, one of the largest corporations in America, filed a whopping 57,000-page federal tax return earlier this year but didn’t pay taxes on $14 billion in profits. The return, which was filed electronically, would have been 19 feet high if printed out and stacked.

GE’s tax bill illustrates both why our corporate tax rate is too high and too low. The nominal rate is too high which encourages a real rate which is too low.

Consider the resources that GE spends to lowers its tax bill, not just the many millions spent on clever accounting and accountants and the many millions spent on lobbying but also the many inefficient ways that GE structures its businesses just to avoid paying taxes and the many millions it invests in socially wasteful projects just in order to produce privately valuable tax credits. Now add to that the allocational inefficiencies of taxing some firms at different rates than others and you have a corporate tax system which wastes a lot of resources and raises relatively little revenue. Indeed, a corporate tax system with a tax rate of zero could well be preferable as it would waste fewer resources and raise not much less revenue.

via The 57,000 Page Tax Return — Marginal Revolution.

Very interesting case showing how hidden rules outpaces formal laws; some words are specially clever, such as US corp tax is both low and high: nominal tax is too high but real tax is too low due to loopholes. BTW, formal institutions are always rigid compared to ICE (hidden rule), so the latter can always beat the former if one is determined to do that. Finally, GE is doing irrational things as the blog is saying: tax cutting efforts lead to waste of resources and damage to social benefits.

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