So what do we learn from these stories? First, that the current international tax system offers huge scope for corporate tax avoidance.
Second, we learn that when nations try to compete with one another by cutting corporate tax rates — the so-called race to the bottom — they aren’t really fighting about who will get jobs and productivity-enhancing investments. There’s very little evidence that cutting profit taxes actually induces corporations to build factories and expand employment.
No, they’re really just fighting about where profits will be reported and hence taxed. And with tax rates falling and tax avoidance flourishing, the result is that tax revenue keeps dropping.
Back in the 1960s, federal taxes on corporate profits were, on average, about 3.5 percent of G.D.P.; now they average around 1 percent. That’s a revenue loss of more than $500 billion a year, enough to pay for a lot of infrastructure, child care, and more.
Which brings us to that G7 deal. How would the 15 percent minimum rate work? Here’s how Gabriel Zucman — who has arguably done more than anyone else to highlight the importance of international tax avoidance — summarizes it: “Take a German multinational that books income in Ireland, taxed at an effective rate of 5 percent. Germany will now collect an extra 10 percent tax to arrive at a rate of 15 percent — same for profits booked by German multinationals in Bermuda, Singapore, etc.”
Obviously this would immediately slash the amount of tax corporations could avoid by shifting reported profits to tax havens. And it would also greatly reduce the incentive for countries to serve as tax havens in the first place. Oh, and if you think corporations can avoid all this just by moving their parent companies to, say, Bermuda, major economies can make that difficult.
To put this in a broader context, what we’re looking at here is the beginning of an attempt to fix a system that is rigged against workers in favor of capital. Workers have few ways to avoid income taxes, payroll taxes and sales taxes besides actually moving to another country. Multinational corporations, which are ultimately owned in large part by a small wealthy minority, can shop for low-tax jurisdictions without doing anything real besides hiring some skilled accountants. The G7 plan would curb that practice.