Wednesday, September 27, 2023

NYU Tax Policy Colloquium, session 2: Rebecca Kysar's The Global Tax Deal and the New International Economic Order: Part 1

Yesterday, at the colloquium's second public session of the semester, Rebecca Kysar (who is visiting at NYU) presented the above-titled paper. It reflects, not just her longstanding international tax policy interests, but also her recent stint at the U.S. Treasury Department, where she was deeply involved in the international negotiations over Pillar 2 (the global minimum tax).

The paper focuses on an apparent paradox that is suggested by the 2021 global accord on implementing Pillar 2. In the trade policy realm, multilateralism has notoriously been giving way to go-it-alone protectionism or narrower regional and other alliances. Yet tax seemingly shows a newfound rise in multilateral cooperation (perhaps little noticed by international scholars outside the tax realm itself). How might one explain the disparity? The paper posits that in both cases - trade and tax - the trigger was public dissatisfaction with the distribution of the gains (as well as losses) from globalization, creating populist anti-business sentiment.

My main thoughts about the issues that the paper raises can be grouped into three main categories:

1) Multilateralism in tax versus trade: Again, multilateral cooperation appears to be falling in trade yet rising in tax, reflecting how populist anti-business sentiment has operated in each realm. But I would note an important difference in how it operates, at least in the US.

Trade: Standard economic theory holds that free trade helps all countries. While some individuals will be losers from it, the idea is that in each country gains will exceed losses. Hence, a given nation could in theory compensate the losers and reap a Pareto improvement from allowing free trade.

As it happens, this scenario does not always apply. For example, a country with monopsony power can benefit from optimal tariffs, and (as I and others have noted with respect to the digital economy), from taxing location-specific rents. In a scenario where lots of countries had the capacity to levy optimal tariffs, multilateralism could in theory yield a global welfare improvement from their all agreeing not to do it. But that scenario has not been at central stage in motivating backsliding from free trade.

Why does one need multilateralism with respect to "regular" (non-optimal) tariffs? It's seemingly unnecessary, as one can unilaterally decide not to harm oneself (and others) by imposing them.

The answer comes from interest group politics. Gains from free trade (e.g., to all consumers) are often more diffuse than losses (e.g., in a declining industry). So multilateralism's main role, in this story, is to secure the adoption of policies that would benefit each country even without reciprocity. I.e.: "I'll forgo my self-harming tariffs if you'll forgo yours.")

The decline of this model isn't just due to interest group politics, which we've had all along. Current bipartisan U.S. dissatisfaction with free trade reflects related political trends in each party.

On the Democratic side, not just politicians but the commentariat have concluded that concentrated losses (which generally don't get much compensation) are not just an interest group issue but one that matters. For example, we may care about workers in failing industry who lose their livelihoods because the skills they have developed no longer have value.

It's also thought that the economic gains from free trade are concentrated at the top. In principle, one could offset this by commensurately ramping up progressive redistribution. But in practice it works the other way. When the top rises, so does its political power, and hence it may pay less tax than if the rules remain fixed, not more.

Absent sufficient policy responses to the concentrated losses and wealth rise at the top, there is no theoretical reason to assume that the US is always better-off by reason of free trade's full operation. Thus, limiting free trade in some instances may serve as a kind of political second-best.

On the Republican side, where support for free trade was seemingly more hard-wired by both ideology and the interests of the donor class, its political downturn was initially forced on the party by Trump. But by now many others in the party have deduced that tariffs or other free trade barriers can be a political winner. This reflects electoral realignments, driving members of the white so-called working class (often not blue-collar at all) into the party's base.

Indeed, both sides have by now long since noted that voters who feel hostile towards free trade are often to be found in swing states that can turn elections. So there is a strong political impetus to move away from free trade, and thus to reject multilateral cooperation that helps to sustain it.

Tax: A very influential view holds that multilateral cooperation is needed to prevent multinational companies (MNCs) from engaging in tax avoidance. Tax competition yields a prisoner's dilemma, and multilateral cooperation is needed to address it.

Just as in trade, however, the need for multilateralism has been disputed. At least for large political entities with market power (e.g., the US and EU), there is some significant ability to impose tax unilaterally on either a corporate residence basis or that of "source" (using the scare quotes to detach from existing source rules). Just as with trade, therefore, multilateralism might be needed at least in part for domestic political reasons, such as overcoming domestic political opposition from the MNCs.

Either way, however, tax differs from trade in that here anti-business populism supports rather than opposes multilateral cooperation. Cue here all the headlines about Apple, Amazon, Facebook/Meta, etcetera earning huge profits and paying little tax, along with the results of public opinion surveys on the topic.

Does this difference in the political implications of anti-business populism explain the seeming paradox at the heart of the paper? To a degree, yes. But there is a big difference. US public political support for making MNCs pay more is far weaker and less politically consequential than that for protectionism. I would that it has verging on zero influence on the outcome of any election. At the most, doing the MNCs' political bidding may very slightly increase voters' perception that a particular politician is not on their side.

International tax policy in the US is mainly just an insiders' game for elites inside the Beltway. So the only reason anti-business populism matters at all in the Washington tax policy realm is that it has changed the views of Democratic (but not Republican) elites. [As an aside, the Republicans did in 2017 enact GILTI and the BEAT, but this reflected that they were being forced by budget limits to choose between the MNCs and business interests that they liked even more - viz., the odious pass-through rules.]

Hence, for anti-business populism to affect US international tax policy, the Democrats must be firmly in control of the legislative and/or regulatory process. And there's kind of an intensity or unanimity handicap here, since the Republicans are more fervent on this side of the debate than the Democrats on theirs, reflecting the MNCs' interest group influence on both.

SO: anti-business populism helps to explain both of the trends that the paper notes. But it's much stronger in trade than tax; hence, we are much more decisively moving away from multilateralism in the firner than towards it in the latter.

This is a US story. Is anti-business populism in tax stronger politically in, say, the EU than here? Probably so, reflecting that Europeans are less drunk on the anti-tax cocktail than are Americans, and also view the big American MNCs as "them' rather than as "us."


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