Corporations, People, and Taxes

I was reviewing some old blog posts and such and came across the following. Remember this beautiful exchange?


Awww, yes. The “evil corporations” trope, i.e. the “confusion between abstract categories and flesh-and-blood human beings.”1 Explaining the fallacious nature of this thinking, Thomas Sowell writes,

Abstract people can be aggregated into statistical categories such as households, families, and income brackets, without the slightest concern for whether those statistical categories contain similar people, or even the same number of people, or people who differ substantially in age, much less in such finer distinctions as whether or not they are working or whether they are the same people in the same categories over time. Abstract people have an immortality which flesh-and-blood people have yet to achieve.2

What Romney’s hecklers (affiliates of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement) and critics seem to have missed is the abstract nature of “greedy corporations.” The rhetoric invoked by these individuals often describes corporations as quasi-personal, transcendent entities that exist above and beyond flesh-and-blood people. As one writer notes, “Romney doesn’t mean that corporations are entitled to some of the legal rights of people in the Citizens United sense. He means it in the sense that the money made by corporations flows in and out of human hands—or pockets, in the language of the heckler who hoisted himself on his own metaphorical petard.” The abstractions of “corporations” and “the rich” are frequently linked, if not synonymous. Yet, empirical evidence suggests that corporate taxes negatively impact actual people. And not the rich ones you would hope for.3

A 2010 working paper explored international tax rates and manufacturing wages across 65 countries over 25 years. It suggests that a 1 percent increase in corporate tax rates decreases wage rates by 0.5-0.6 percent. “These results also hold for effective marginal and average tax rates” (pg. 22). A 2012 study4 looked at over 55,000 companies in 9 European countries between 1996 and 2003. It found that every $1 increase in tax liability leads to a $0.49 decline in wages. This suggests that about 50% of the increased tax burden is passed on to the labor force over the long run. A 2007 Kansas City Fed working paper used cross-country data between 1979 and 2002 to find that a 1 percentage point increase in the average corporate tax rate led to a 0.7% decrease in annual gross wages; a decrease that was more than 4 times the amount of the corporate tax revenue collected. Furthermore, the “burden of the corporate tax on wages is shared equally across skill-level, suggesting that the corporate tax may not be as progressive as many politicians assume. Also, as the economy becomes more global, raising the corporate tax may result in lower than predicted corporate revenue increases due to the ability of firms to avoid taxes more effectively” (pg. 22). Another 2007 paper looked at a panel of U.S. multinationals across 50 countries over a 15-year period. The authors found that 45-75% of the corporate tax is shouldered by labor, with the rest falling on capital. Similarly, a 2013 study finds that a $1 increase in corporate tax liability leads to decreases in wages by about $0.60. The authors conclude,

Our findings suggest that labor shares a significant part of the burden of corporate income taxes. A direct calculation of the mean marginal effect of the corporate income tax from our estimates suggests that a 10 percent increase in the tax rate would decrease the average wage rate by 0.28–0.38 percent. Labor shares at least 42 percent of the burden of the corporate tax and possibly more. The average labor share of the corporate tax burden is around 60–80 percent (pg. 233).

A 2016 study5 of state corporate tax rates concluded that 25-30% fell on landowners and 30-35% fell on workers. A 2016 paper for the Federal Reserve looked at 131 tax increases and 140 tax cuts across 45 states going back to 1969. It found that “a one percentage-point increase in the top marginal corporate income tax rate reduces employment by between 0.3% and 0.5% and income by between 0.3% and 0.6%, measured relative to neighboring counties on the other side of the state border. These estimates are remarkably stable: they remain essentially unchanged regardless of local characteristics such as the flexibility of local labor markets, income levels, population density, or the prevalence of small businesses in a county. They are also stable across the business cycle and little changed when we control for localized industry-level shocks by comparing employment and income in bordering counties within the same industry” (pg. 3). A 2009 study by economist Robert Carroll found that across state lines “a one percent drop in the average tax rate leads to a 0.014 percent rise in real wages five years later.” In other words, wages rise $2.50 for every dollar reduction in the state-local corporate income taxes. The opposite also occurs: every dollar increase in tax rates leads to a $2.50 loss in wages. Drawing on recent research, Carroll suggests that “the least mobile factor of production is likely to bear the burden of a tax. In an increasingly global economy, labor is the least mobile because capital can flow freely across borders…When workers have more capital to work with, their labor productivity and wages will rise” (pg. 1). An abstraction is unable to pay its demanded “fair share” and instead places the economic burden on individuals. “After all, businesses are merely convenient ways of organizing economic activity,” writes Carroll, “so while businesses write checks to pay the corporate tax (and other taxes), the burden of those taxes falls ultimately on the individuals who depend on the corporations, in their roles as investors, workers, or consumers” (pg. 2). This is why Carroll finds numerous benefits to cutting corporate taxes, including higher long-term growth, higher wages and living standards, lowered tax burdens on low-income taxpayers and seniors, and boosted entrepreneurship, investment, and productivity.


The point of this review is to remind us that policy is complicated and often counterintuitive. We need to look at the empirical evidence. And if there isn’t much, perhaps we should wait until there is. The effects are real and they impact real people. The problem is that rarely will you achieve a utopian outcome. As I’m fond of saying, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.”6