A Global Perspective on Territorial Taxation
Catherine the Great is supposed to have said, “A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.” In Washington, winds are stirring for corporate tax reform. But while there is broad bipartisan agreement that tax rates should be reduced, there is less consensus regarding what the tax rate should be, how to pay for a tax cut, or generally how to treat international business income. These considerations are inextricably intertwined because the U.S. assesses its corporations on worldwide income.
Beyond imposing the highest top marginal tax rate in the developed world, the U.S. tax system’s treatment of international business income is exceptionally burdensome. It inflicts tremendous compliance costs, creates enormous distortions of economic activity, deters companies from headquartering in the U.S., awards tax preferences to politically connected industries, and traps huge amounts of U.S. corporate profits overseas. To add insult to injury, despite these punitive features, the system captures a meager stream of tax revenue.
To address these structural flaws, recent years have witnessed a steady march of tax reform proposals from both sides of the aisle and from several independent advisory boards and agencies. Though reform plans vary widely in their specific provisions, they follow one of two general approaches to taxing international business income: “worldwide” basis versus “territorial” basis.
Under the worldwide approach, all income of domestically-headquartered companies is subject to tax, including income earned abroad. To avoid double taxation of the same income base, worldwide systems provide credits for taxes paid to foreign governments. The overarching purpose of the worldwide design is to “create equality among resident taxpayers,” so as not to distort the investment decisions of domestically headquartered companies toward low-tax countries.