The Trump corporate income tax cuts are the latest in a decades-long trend of tax reductions that have been substantially reversed mainly during times of war.
The historical evidence is revealing.
When the federal corporate income tax began in 1909, it was about as low as it could be — a rate of only 1 percent of corporate profits. Over more than 100 years, it has followed a broad hump shape, increasing for about half a century, and then decreasing for about the next 50 years.
The corporate tax rate peaked in 1968 at 52.8 percent. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 brought the 2018 rate down to 21 percent from 35 percent last year.
Wars provided an impetus for tax increases, with major hikes during both world wars and the Korean War. Corporate taxes remained high for more than 30 years, then dropped sharply under President Ronald Reagan and now, again, with President Trump.
At the beginning of the modern era of income taxes in America — in 1909 for corporations and 1913 for individuals — war was not a factor. Instead, in the Progressive era, the main argument for instituting these levies was that “wealth is escaping its due share of taxation,” Edwin Seligman wrote in his 1914 book, “The Income Tax: A Study of the History, Theory and Practice of Income Taxation at Home and Abroad.”
Taxes on land hit farmers unfairly, proponents of the new taxes said, while owners of corporate stocks paid no taxes. Excise and customs duties taxed consumers unfairly and benefited specific domestic industries, so the argument went. Seligman, a professor at Columbia University, said the income taxes were not an “attack on wealth as such.” The aim of the new income taxes “was solely to redress the inequality of taxation.”
That was an intellectual defense of the income tax. But more emotional issues — those of unequal sacrifice in time of war — account for the high levels to which corporate tax rates rose.
During World War I, the federal corporate income tax rose to 12 percent in 1918 from 1 percent in 1915. In addition, in 1917 a new “excess profits tax” — on profits above the payer’s prewar level — was imposed, and it ranged as high as 80 percent. The increase came amid public outcry against wartime “profiteering.” People were angry to see men who stayed at home becoming millionaires from war profits, while the soldiers overseas were fighting and, often, dying.
The excess profits tax was scrapped in 1921, but the corporation income tax remained at nearly the same level.
With World War II, rates rose further, reaching 40 percent in 1942. And once again a wartime excess profits tax was instituted, ranging up to 95 percent.
After that war, the corporate excess profits tax was eliminated, but the corporate income tax rates were not cut back for long.
The Korean War, which scared many people as being the possible beginning of what they called “World War III,” occasioned further increases. The federal corporate income tax rate rose to 52 percent, and yet another temporary excess profits tax was instituted. And again, a familiar pattern was in place: Corporate income tax rates did not decline much after the war was over.
These wartime tax increases left a lasting legacy of relatively high corporate income tax rates. Even with the Trump tax cuts, the United States is far above the rate that prevailed before World War I.
According to a “cognitive theory” of taxation offered by Edward J. McCaffery, a scholar at the University of Southern California, governments use the opportunity of a war to raise tax rates when “citizens are either more patriotic and willing to share with the government, and/or are distracted by the crisis itself.”
What prompted taxes to begin a long decline, starting with the Reagan presidency in the 1980s? Here, we are in the realm of speculation. Decades after the Korean War — arguably the last American war with a high degree of public unanimity — the names and feats of war heroes began to fade in memory. People may simply have returned to more individualistic, self-centered views of society and the economy.
In any case, under Reagan, the top corporate tax rate dropped from 46 percent to 34 percent. In 1993, during the Clinton administration, it increased slightly to 35 percent, where it held until last year.
Similar declines occurred in other countries in recent decades. That didn’t happen because governments needed less tax revenue. To the contrary, Prof. Joel Slemrod of the University of Michigan has shown that “across countries, there is no association of the expenditure-G.D.P. ratio with the corporate statutory rate.”
Effective tax rates — actual corporate taxes paid as a percentage of pretax profits, including the effects of all deductions and accounting tricks — can’t be tracked accurately all the way back to 1909, but estimates have also shown a decline in these rates in recent decades.
What data we do have shows an unmistakable trend. Consider, for example, the United States National Income and Product Accounts, published by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. Data from that source indicates that the fraction of profits on corporate income taken by federal, state, local and foreign taxes peaked during World War II and has shown a fairly linear, steady and steep downtrend ever since.
This history provides an important perspective.
While it may be tempting to view the Reagan and Trump tax policies as anomalies, they may be seen as part of a long-term trend. It is important to recognize that Reagan’s tax decreases were not substantially reversed under subsequent administrations. And it is quite possible that President Trump’s corporate tax cuts may remain in place, even if Trump political power ebbs.
Given this history, I have to wonder: Will it take a major war — one that galvanizes the public, involves vast sacrifice and seems to truly threaten domestic survival — to raise the corporation income tax significantly?
Robert J. Shiller is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale.