Burger King announced recently that it was considering a deal to become Canadian. The proposed plan involves a merger with Tim Hortons and establishing the headquarters of the combined company in Canada. Apart from its other business merits — the company insists there are many — the transaction looks likely to cut down considerably on Burger King’s corporate tax bill.

Voices on the left promptly cried foul. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, complained that the deal shows “contempt” for average Americans, and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, called for a consumer boycott of the company.

Their outrage is misplaced. They should instead be outraged at the uniquely burdensome way the United States taxes corporations who do business overseas.

Most of the commentary about tax “inversions” focuses on the fact that the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world, at 35 percent.

That rate is absurdly high, especially since — as Democrats never tire of reminding us in other contexts — corporations are not really people. When the Burger King corporation pays taxes, the money ultimately comes out of the pockets of individual people like you and me. When the company has to come up with money to pay the government, it gets that money from actual people — from shareholders, employees and customers.

So corporate taxes generally are just non-transparent, indirect taxes. Because it is so hard to determine precisely what fraction of the taxes are paid in the form of higher prices rather than as lower returns to investors, we cannot with any confidence claim that they are even especially progressive taxes. And, if most of the money in fact comes from higher prices and lower wages, they may turn out to be highly regressive.


Governments like such taxes, though, precisely because they are indirect: Voters don’t blame politicians for raising taxes they don’t know they are paying.

Again, the high corporate tax rate is bad enough. But that is not the main reason why firms are contemplating overseas moves.

Alone among developed nations, the United States claims the right to tax all the profits any U.S.-based company earns, wherever in the world those profits are made.

If a U.S.-based company makes a profit in the United States, it pays tax at the U.S. rate. If it makes a profit in another country, it pays tax in that other country on the profit earned there, and then if it wants to bring those profits back to the United States, it also pays U.S. taxes on the income earned abroad. (As a practical matter, many firms do not now bring those profits back to the United States, which means less investment and economic development at home.)

No other developed country has such a policy of global taxation for its nationals. Every other developed country has a territorially based system of taxation.

The United States also applies this same, uniquely burdensome policy to individual incomes earned overseas, which makes it needlessly expensive for multinational companies to hire American nationals for overseas postings and also subjects American expats, and their banks and their employers, to extraordinarily burdensome tax reporting measures. But that would be yet another column.


To see what a difference there is between the global and territorial approaches to taxation, consider the situation of two identical companies, one located in the United States and one in Canada.

The Canadian company would pay U.S. corporate taxes on profits earned in the United States, Canadian taxes on profits earned in Canada, United Kingdom taxes on profits earned in the United Kingdom, French taxes on income earned in France, and so on.

A comparable U.S. company would pay all of those taxes — plus additional U.S. taxes on income earned in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and anywhere else that company made money.

How is that fair? An argument can be made that the American shareholders, employees and customers of American companies should pay extra, indirect taxes to pay for the benefits their company receives from the American polity.

But what does the United States government really do for the overseas subsidiaries of companies with their headquarters in the United States? The British subsidiary enjoys the protection of the British government, which assess taxes accordingly. Why should the U.S. government just take a little extra off the top?

If we want to keep business headquarters in America, we should abandon our outrageous and uniquely burdensome policy of global taxation. Since that is not likely to happen any time soon, I’ll plan to register my protest by having a Whopper and a Timmie.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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