Particularly in recent months, Republicans have gotten a lot of mileage out of the claim that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay taxes. “We’re dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax,” Rick Perry said in his presidential announcement speech. “A majority of American households paid no income tax in 2009. Zero. Zip. Nada,” declared Senator John Cornyn of Texas this summer.
The truth behind the truth, of course, is that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes because they don’t earn enough money. For example, a couple with two children earning less than $26,400 isn’t required to pay any income taxes, because they are presumably stretched thin enough already. The elderly, poor and young receive various tax credits that exempt them from having to pay already meager incomes to the federal government.
If Republicans really wanted to go after tax freeloaders, they ought to start talking about big corporations. Today, Citizens for Tax Justice released a damning report detailing how many large corporations paid ridiculously low tax rates on billions in profit—and in some cases, actually got money from the government.
The CTJ studied tax information from 280 of the country’s largest corporations over a three year period from 2008–10, and found that though the corporate tax rate is 35 percent, on average those companies only paid about half of that. Among the other findings:
Only 25 percent—71 companies—actually paid something close to the federal corporate tax rate of 35 percent. They averaged a 32.3 percent effective tax rate.
An equal number of companies, 67, paid an effective three-year tax rate of less than 10 percent. Their average tax rate was zero.
Most shocking, 30 companies actually paid a negative effective tax rate, meaning that through clever accounting and generous government subsidies, they actually got money from the government. These companies made a profit of $160.4 billion over the same three-year period. Here’s a list of these companies:
In my recent piece for The Nation, “How to Be a 1 Percenter,” I looked at some of the ways that rich corporations and individuals use the legislative process to protect and enrich their fortunes. Fighting for tax breaks and subsidies is a key way to protect that wealth.
The CTJ study found four industries that get 56 percent of federal tax subsidies, and they aren’t likely to elicit much sympathy from actual taxpayers: the largest industry to benefit is financial services, which received $37.5 million in federal subsidies and paid an effective tax rate of 15.5 percent over the past three years. The other three industries receiving a majority of tax subsidies are utilities (like gas and electric companies), telecommunications companies, and oil and gas companies.
Defense contractors also do pretty well—the top ten have enough accountants and lobbyists to keep their average effective tax rate at less than half of the 35 percent corporate rate, despite $67 million in profit over the past three years:
It’s hard to imagine most Americans would actually support paying fewer taxes than defense contractors, oil companies and Wall Street firms—while giving some of what they do pay in the form of subsidies to those same corporations. But that’s the reality of the current tax system.
Republicans, however, uniformly want to cut corporate taxes—while, apparently, seeking to raise them on the 47 percent of Americans that don’t make enough money to pay taxes under the current code.
Unfortunately many Democrats also support cutting corporate taxes, though they at least want to get rid of the subsidies too—President Obama recently proposed lowering the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to somewhere between 26 and 30 percent, but wanted to pay for it by closing the loopholes and exemptions that allow so many companies to get away with not paying taxes.
In any case, it’s hard to look at a tax system where many middle-income people pay taxes at a higher rate than multibillion-dollar corporations and say that it’s fair. The next time a journalist acts confused as to why so many people are taking to the street, protesting unfairness in the economic system, the CTJ report is one of many good examples to bolster the people’s case.