How is Foreign Tax Repatriation Different than Immigration Amnesty?

As politicians in DC lurch toward some sort of bipartisan approach to immigration, conservatives remain adamant that immigrants currently in the country illegally be given no path to citizenship. These conservatives see no reason to reward lawbreakers with citizenship, and worry about the message that will send to future immigrants: if you come here illegally and stay long enough, you will get away with it. I understand this perspective; amnesty reeks of moral hazard. I think that realistically, we need to find a path anyway – we can’t just deport 11million people, many of them employed and embedded in society. But I do very much appreciate the concerns of conservatives on this issue.

However, at the same time, the same conservatives are calling for a tax holiday that will let US companies repatriate their offshore cash at reduced tax rates. Under current law, companies can keep their overseas profits in low tax countries, but if they try to bring that cash back home, they have to pay higher US taxes. In 2004 companies were granted a one-time holiday, with tax rates reduced to 5 percent, and they took advantage by bringing a ton of dough back into the US. But of course, all this tax amnesty did was encourage companies to keep driving their revenue through offshore tax havens, and then use their lobbyists to push for another tax holiday.

If amnesty creates moral hazard, by encouraging people to do the wrong thing and then be forgiven, why would multinational companies be different than illegal immigrants? Storing your cash offshore is not illegal, while immigrating illegally obviously is, but the motivation component is the exact same: if you believe that amnesty encourages behavior, then you need to apply that theory equally across your policies.

By the way, among the leading rationales advanced for the tax holiday is that companies will invest the repatriated cash in jobs and growth. However, studies of the last holiday showed that companies mostly returned the cash to shareholders. Even the Wall Street Journal says so! Here is a story about how companies play the cash repatriation game, and here is one about how hard corporate lobbyists are pushing for a holiday.

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