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Are 'Fiscal Cliff' Talks Ignoring a Major Source of Tax Dollars?

Nov 27, 2012 | Updated Jan 27, 2013

After pausing to cook their turkeys, America's senators and representatives are once again teetering and tussling on the edge of that infamous fiscal cliff.

And from the blogosphere to public affairs radio shows, the news media are once again atwitter with talk of tax hikes and entitlement cuts and which side will get what.

Conspicuously absent from the all the speculation, however -- and likely from the negotiations, too -- is any mention of a potential solution that could restore both tens of billions of dollars in taxes to the coffers of the U.S. Treasury and some semblance of fairness to our crippled tax system.

That money could be raised if Congress would clamp down on the widespread and growing practice of major corporations stashing hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars in overseas bank accounts. They're in essence legally laundering this money to keep it out of the hands of the tax collector. And the rest of us pay the price.

That's what I learned this weekend by watching the documentary We're Not Broke, a film shown a half dozen times at this year's Sundance Film Festival but not widely distributed since. I borrowed it from a classmate in a course I'm taking, then interviewed the man behind it, her husband.

Charles Davidson, publisher of The American Interest magazine and the executive producer of Onshore Productions, described the secreting of corporate assets overseas this way: "The numbers are huge. ... It's sort of a gangrene in our society."

Those are strong words from a former venture capitalist.

We're Not Broke begins with a film clip of Republican House Speaker John Boehner announcing: "We're broke. We're broke. America's broke."

That, the film suggests, would not be the case if the country's largest corporations paid their fair share of taxes. Instead, such powerhouses as Exxon, Bank of America and GE paid zero taxes -- that's right, zero -- on billions of dollars in profits in 2009, 2010 or, in the case of GE, 2005 through 2010.

Nor are they alone. According to the FACTCOALITION of the Tax Justice Network, on whose board Davidson serves, 30 of the top 100 American corporations paid zero income tax in at least one year between 2008 and 2010. Though Republicans during the recent election campaign kept complaining about the 35 percent tax rate American corporations are supposed to pay, no one mentioned that the actual percentage corporations pay in taxes on domestic profits averages 12 percent, the coalition says, citing the Congressional Budget Office.

And that is considerably less than many middle-class Americans.

Just how much corporate and individual money has been shipped offshore is exceedingly difficult to decipher, Davidson said. But he referenced a report this year by James Henry, an author, figure in his film and former chief economist at the McKinsey consulting group. It estimates that across the globe, rich individuals alone have shipped a mind-boggling sum -- at least $21 trillion-- into secret offshore accounts.

Davidson said We're Not Broke focused on major multinational corporations because the U.S. taxes they avoid are somewhat easier to trace. He acknowledged these taxes alone wouldn't pay off America's debt. But they would make a serious dent in it, he added. And their payment would restore faith in and fairness to American tax policies.

"Tax rates are going to go up," Davidson said. "You need more revenue. But if we also can collect revenue that's been evaded ... that makes a huge difference in helping with the inequality issue. And the offshore thing is a huge element of that. .. [It's] just undermining government. It's a complete breakdown and it's systemic."

How systemic? The FACTCOALITION estimates that U.S. corporate tax revenue as a share of this country's GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has declined from 7.2 percent in 1945 to 1.3 percent in 2011.

That translates to big, big bucks that have been lost. It's money the federal government could use, for example, to pay down the debt -- or fund state grants used for essential services from public safety to fighting fires. It's also money, the film notes, that when not paid in taxes gives multinational corporations an unfair and sometimes crippling edge over the small businesses that do pay -- the same small businesses both parties extol as the true backbone of the U.S. economy.

So before Congress negotiates ways to cut more programs, it should buck the bipartisan largesse of lobbyists trying to buy it and start enforcing existing tax laws -- closing some of the loopholes riddling America's 72,000-page code along the way. It should, but it won't. Not unless the American public hollers.

What Democrats in Congress should not do is give Republicans more than $2 in revenue cuts for each $1 in tax increases, a formula the president and Boehner came close to agreeing on before negotiations collapsed last year.

The president won this year's election, and he won it by several million votes. If he has to lead us over that this much-hyped cliff to demonstrate to Americans just how greedy the wealthy and corporate backers of the Republican Party are, then so be it. The public's howl eventually will force the GOP to accept a fairer resolution. If you want ammunition for the fight ahead, We're Not Broke is a good place to start.