Are you as stunned as I am that General Electric Co., which netted $14 billion in worldwide profits last year, paid no U.S. taxes on the earnings?
I've focused on taxes for almost 15 years. I lived in Washington, D.C., for two decades and saw how tax laws were made and then changed once folks (aka special interests) discovered how they really worked.
And I know that both individual and corporate taxpayers who can afford expensive and creative tax advisers are able to dramatically whittle down their Internal Revenue Service bills.
But the General Electric Co. situation still shocked me.
It's the largest corporation in the United States. It recorded worldwide profits in 2010 of $14.2 billion, with $5.1 billion of that from U.S. operations. It paid no U.S. tax bill. In fact, GE claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.
Now it's easy to blast GE, but its executives just did what all of us wish we could do, beat the tax man at his own game.
So maybe it is time to change the game.
There's already talk of tax reform on Capitol Hill. And most agree that the starting point should be with the corporate tax system.
Before the GE no-tax revelation, businesses complaining about the United States' 35 percent minimum corporate tax rate being among the highest in the world looked like they might get some relief.
After all, Republicans are in control of the House and hold a good number of seats in the Senate. With the country still struggling to come out of the recession, the standard business argument that making things better tax-wise for companies will make them more willing to hire more people sounded pretty good.
Now, however, it looks like GE might have spoiled it for not only itself, but the rest of corporate America.
Just how many people did GE hire while it was raking in billions and not sending any back as tax payments to the U.S. Treasury? Well, the company sure added staff in its tax division. Company officials told The New York Times that GE's tax department had expanded over the last 20 years and now employs 975 tax specialists.
But since 2002, reports the Times, GE has eliminated a fifth of its work force in the United States while increasing overseas employment.
Taxpayers, known as voters on Capitol Hill, are furious at how easily big firms seem to pay much less taxes than Jane and John Q. Public. Calls are getting louder in the halls of Congress for the wealthiest Americans and most profitable corporations to do their tax share to reduce the country's growing deficit.
Now I know things aren't black or white or ever as simple as taxes paid compared to profits and jobs.
But I also know that as long as a lot of middle-income taxpayers face an individual alternative minimum tax designed to make sure they don't escape taxation, a similar safeguard must be put in place to ensure that the biggest corporate taxpayers also do their tax-paying part.
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