No doubt you realize that as of today, you are still working to pay your tax bill. Most of us have to work until sometime in late May to pay our share (image courtesy taxfoundation.org):
A corporation in the US is supposed to pay tax as well, up to 35%, one of the highest corporate rates in the world. But wait! Even though all animals are equal on this animal farm, some are more equal than others.
From the NYT (!!!):
(G.E.) 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.
That may be hard to fathom for the millions of American business owners and households now preparing their own returns, but low taxes are nothing new for G.E. The company has been cutting the percentage of its American profits paid to the Internal Revenue Service for years, resulting in a far lower rate than at most multinational companies.
Its extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore. 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. . .
In a regulatory filing just a week before the Japanese disaster put a spotlight on the company’s nuclear reactor business, G.E. reported that its tax burden was 7.4 percent of its American profits, about a third of the average reported by other American multinationals. Even those figures are overstated, because they include taxes that will be paid only if the company brings its overseas profits back to the United States. With those profits still offshore, G.E. is effectively getting money back. . .
Even as the government faces a mounting budget deficit, the talk in Washington is about lower rates. President Obama has said he is considering an overhaul of the corporate tax system, with an eye to lowering the top rate, ending some tax subsidies and loopholes and generating the same amount of revenue. He has designated G.E.’s chief executive, Jeffrey R. Immelt, as his liaison to the business community and as the chairman of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, and it is expected to discuss corporate taxes.
“He understands what it takes for America to compete in the global economy,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Immelt, on his appointment in January, after touring a G.E. factory in upstate New York that makes turbines and generators for sale around the world. . .
And Immelt’s Army knows how to get what G.E. needs:
A review of company filings and Congressional records shows that one of the most striking advantages of General Electric is its ability to lobby for, win and take advantage of tax breaks. . .
The head of its tax team, Mr. Samuels, met with Representative Charles B. Rangel, then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which would decide the fate of the tax break. As he sat with the committee’s staff members outside Mr. Rangel’s office, Mr. Samuels dropped to his knee and pretended to beg for the provision to be extended — a flourish made in jest, he said through a spokeswoman.
That day, Mr. Rangel reversed his opposition to the tax break, according to other Democrats on the committee.
The following month, Mr. Rangel and Mr. Immelt stood together at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem as G.E. announced that its foundation had awarded $30 million to New York City schools, including $11 million to benefit various schools in Mr. Rangel’s district. Joel I. Klein, then the schools chancellor, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who presided, said it was the largest gift ever to the city’s schools.
G.E. officials say the donation was granted solely on the merit of the project. “The foundation goes to great lengths to ensure grant decisions are not influenced by company government relations or lobbying priorities,” Ms. Eisele said.
Mr. Rangel, who was censured by Congress last year for soliciting donations from corporations and executives with business before his committee, said this month that the donation was unrelated to his official actions. . .
G.E. officials say that neither Mr. Samuels nor any lobbyists working on behalf of the company discussed the possibility of a charitable donation with Mr. Rangel. The only contact was made in late 2007, a company spokesman said, when Mr. Immelt called to inform Mr. Rangel that the foundation was giving money to schools in his district.
But in 2008, when Mr. Rangel was criticized for using Congressional stationery to solicit donations for a City College of New York school being built in his honor, Mr. Rangel said he had appealed to G.E. executives to make the $30 million donation to New York City schools.
G.E. had nothing to do with the City College project, he said at a July 2008 news conference in Washington. “And I didn’t send them any letter,” Mr. Rangel said, adding that he “leaned on them to help us out in the city of New York as they have throughout the country. But my point there was that I do know that the C.E.O. there is connected with the foundation.”
In an interview this month, Mr. Rangel offered a different version of events — saying he didn’t remember ever discussing it with Mr. Immelt and was unaware of the foundation’s donation until the mayor’s office called him in June, before the announcement and after Mr. Rangel had dropped his opposition to the tax break.
Asked to explain the discrepancies between his accounts, Mr. Rangel replied, “I have no idea.”
It seems this is nothing new:
In the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan overhauled the tax system after learning that G.E. — a company for which he had once worked as a commercial pitchman — was among dozens of corporations that had used accounting gamesmanship to avoid paying any taxes.
“I didn’t realize things had gotten that far out of line,” Mr. Reagan told the Treasury secretary, Donald T. Regan, according to Mr. Regan’s 1988 memoir. The president supported a change that closed loopholes and required G.E. to pay a far higher effective rate, up to 32.5 percent.
That pendulum began to swing back in the late 1990s. G.E. and other financial services firms won a change in tax law that would allow multinationals to avoid taxes on some kinds of banking and insurance income. The change meant that if G.E. financed the sale of a jet engine or generator in Ireland, for example, the company would no longer have to pay American tax on the interest income as long as the profits remained offshore.
G.E. has responded to the New York Times story:
G.E. subsequently pointed out what it says is a significant flaw in the story: That the Times did not take into account the impact of its GE Capital losses in the financial crisis. G.E. said that if you exclude GE Capital its tax rate has been about 21 percent.
At his press briefing Friday afternoon, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked to square Mr. Obama’s call for corporate tax reform with his embrace of Immelt. Asked if the story bothered the president, Carney responded that “he is bothered by what I think you’re getting at, which is that Americans, I’m sure, who read that story or heard about it are wondering, you know — you know, how this could be.”
I’m bothered, too. I certainly believe everyone should pay their fair share, and not one cent more. But most of us can’t lobby Congress to lower our taxes, or (legally) move our profits offshore so as to subvert the system. This doesn’t quite smell right, does it, folks?