President Obama has been talking an awful lot about fairness lately.
This week, he said that he was in a better position than rival Mitt
Romney to make sure that “everybody in the country has a fair shot”
and that “everybody’s paying their fair share.” The president singled
out the oil industry for particular criticism, claiming that the
sector gets too many federal tax breaks.
It’s true — oil companies don’t pay their fair share. They pay more than that.
Absent major changes in the way this country taxes corporations, there
may not be any more companies — oil or otherwise — for the federal
government to tax.
The top corporate income tax rate in the United States is 35 percent.
Yet America’s three largest oil companies — ExxonMobil, Chevron, and
ConocoPhillips — pay taxes in excess of 40 percent. ExxonMobil pays
45 percent, shelling out over $12 billion in federal taxes in 2011.
Fair, low corporate tax rates generate economic growth, produce jobs,
and make goods and services cheaper for consumers.
Apparently, the United States is the only country in the world that
hasn’t gotten the memo. Over the past decade, the global average
corporate tax rate dropped from 32 percent to 25 percent, while the
U.S. rate remained exactly the same. Consequently, America now has the
highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world.
Our stiflingly high rate is bad enough. But the federal government
also taxes U.S.-based companies on money they make in foreign
countries in addition to income earned domestically. We’re one of the
only countries in the world to do so.
Unsurprisingly, many business leaders are considering leaving America
for countries with lower tax rates on domestic earnings and little to
no tax liabilities on income earned abroad. Some already have.
The U.S. corporate tax structure doesn’t just kill American jobs. It
also plays favorites. In recent years, federal lawmakers have showered
preferred industries and companies with tax breaks and other
As a result, seemingly every corporation faces a different tax rate,
depending on how much lawmakers like them, how good their lobbyists
are, and how well they’re able to exploit tax shelters.
For instance, America’s 20 most profitable companies paid an average
of 25.4 percent in taxes in 2010. In the same year, General Electric
paid just 7.4 percent. And last year, Apple paid 9.8 percent. Almost
every company in the United States pays a lower tax rate than oil
And what do politicians do with the extra lucre they extract from oil
companies? They subsidize the industry’s competitors.
In 2011, the federal government gave away $16 billion in taxpayer
dollars to subsidize non-traditional energy schemes. Included in the
handouts were a $6 billion giveaway for ethanol companies and millions
more to bankroll solar-energy companies like the infamous — and
now-bankrupt — solar-panel maker Solyndra.
It’s the stated goal of many of these alternative energy firms to put
oil companies out of business. That’s all well and good. But they
shouldn’t get a multibillion-dollar assist from taxpayers.
Only the federal government could see the “fairness” in taking a hefty
slice of the oil industry’s revenues as taxes and using it to fuel the
Oil companies may make for convenient — and politically popular —
targets. But the fact is that they pay more than their fair share in
taxes. Lawmakers should direct their energies instead toward fixing
America’s expensive and uneven corporate tax system — before it
drives any more companies and jobs out of the country.
Drew Johnson is a senior fellow at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance
(TPA), a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational organization dedicated to
a smaller, more responsible government.