This week’s Tax Policy Colloquium paper (by me)

This week at the NYU Tax Policy Colloquium, the paper we discussed was mine – i.e., my work-in-progress, entitled Digital Service Taxes and the Broader Shift From Determining the Source of Income to Taxing Location-Specific Rents.

It was a very fruitful session, that has inspired my making a few expansions and clarifications of the analysis in the version that I have posted.

Alas, I’m a bit handcuffed with regard to including a lot of content here. I’m not going to re-post the link to it, although you can readily find it on SSRN, as I’d rather have people read the revised version than the currently posted one. But I’m not quite ready to post that, since (1) I have some readers’ comments that I want to look at closely first, and (2) I’ll be presenting it at U Toronto Law School’s tax policy workshop in a couple of weeks, and might as well take advantage of that feedback as well.

I generally don’t discuss the colloquium sessions here, lest they lose their off-the-record status, with potential inhibiting effects on discussion. And discussing it here as if it were someone else’s paper doesn’t seem quite the thing to do either.

So why don’t I settle for posting the abstract, which at present goes something like this:

In recent decades, a number of fantastically successful, mainly American, multinational entities (MNEs) have risen to global economic hyper-prominence. While their market capitalizations and profits are high, reflecting that they earn substantial rents or quasi-rents, their aggregate global taxes are generally quite low, reflecting their ability to create stateless income.

Often, these MNEs are technology companies – but not always. Starbucks, for example, enjoys high global profits and low taxes despite its following a classic brick-and-mortar retail business model. This reflects that, like its more obviously high-tech peers, it relies on valuable intellectual property that helps it in creating both global pretax profitability and stateless income.

Such MNEs’ rise has placed substantial pressure on existing corporate income tax models. While the existing models might perhaps be significantly improved, this would still leave market countries (where the MNEs’ consumers are located) well short of being able to tax, as fully as they might like, the location-specific rents that these companies earn by interacting with their residents.

Market countries that use novel tax instruments, such as properly designed digital services taxes (DSTs) to expand their capacity to reach such location-specific rents, are not acting unreasonably, as judged within existing (and fairly lax) norms for constraining and channeling countries’ self-interested behavior. DSTs also have the potential (although whether it will be realized is uncertain) to improve, rather than worsen, global efficiency and distribution. Whether they prove permanent or merely transitional, DSTs look like harbingers of a new era in which entity-level corporate taxation rightly focuses more on immobile factors and locational rents, and less on decades-old doctrinal and semantic debates concerning the supposedly “true” source of economic income and value creation.