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The simple truth about America's awful tax code I learned as a Fortune 500 CEO

Because of Congress’s failure, American consumers, companies and workers are suffering.
Image: An employee operates a sewing machine to stitch a pair of jeans at the Dearborn Denim facility in Chicago
An employee sewes a pair of jeans at the Dearborn Denim facility in Chicago on Nov. 8, 2017.Jim Young / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

In business, it all comes down to your return on investment (ROI). Decisions are made based on what is best for the company’s bottom line. Unfortunately, America’s current tax code is telling companies they will get a better ROI by investing their resources in another country.

First, within the United States, we don’t have a level playing field across all industries. I led two Fortune 500 companies. One of them, Dollar General, today pays an effective tax rate of 37 percent. The other, Reebok, pays an effective rate of 19 percent. This is not because of loopholes exploited by these businesses. It is an amalgamation of 100 years of Washington toying with the tax code to incentivize certain industries without ever revisiting whether these incentives actually accomplished their intended goal, or were still relevant.

By design, the United States tax code dictates how business decisions are made. Because of Congress’s failure to continually update the code to keep up with the changes in the global economy, American consumers, companies and workers are being significantly disadvantaged.

At the same time, our international tax structure is jeopardizing domestic growth and crushing corporations’ ability to be globally competitive. We have one of the highest corporate tax rates in the developed world and we still have a tax on repatriated earnings. Essentially, that is a double tax that has locked more than $2.6 trillion in U.S. profits overseas. Personally, this tax on repatriated earnings prevented me from investing where I wanted to — here in America.

Again, these profits trapped overseas could be put towards meaningful investments in plants, equipment, training and helping people change from one job to another. That’s a big need in the United States as we go from an industrial age to an information age. Instead, our tax code has contributed to 30 years of missed opportunities to grow the economy and develop our workforce.

This tax on repatriated earnings prevented me from investing where I wanted to — here in America.

In 1986, the United States changed the tax code to lower the corporate rate and make us more competitive. Since then, America has done nothing, while other countries such as Ireland, Germany, the UK and Japan all dramatically lowered their rates and did away with their repatriation tax. There are now plans to lower the corporate rate in both France and the Netherlands. This raises the stakes even higher for the United States.

As the global economy grows ever more interconnected, more and more of U.S. corporate profits are earned abroad. With other countries lowering their corporate rates and ending their repatriation tax, it is easy to see why American companies are targets on the global acquisitions market. Look at the last decade.

Since 2004, American companies lost more than $500 billion combined on the global acquisitions market. In fact, according to the Business Roundtable, American companies were the target for mergers and acquisitions 31 percent of the time, while they were the acquirer 16 percent of the time. If our corporate tax rate had been 20 percent, it is estimated that 3,200 companies would have stayed in America during that time.

I have lived in Asia and Europe, and have worked on every continent except Antarctica. Four decades of business experience has proven, time and time again, that America has the best workforce in the world. Our workforce is unique, innovative, self-starting and — regardless of obstacles — it gets the job done. However, today’s corporate tax structure is penalizing our workers. We have to reduce the tax burden before it cripples our workforce even further.

If we change the business tax code by lowering the corporate tax rate and eliminating the repatriation tax, there will be renewed investment in our economy. This change will create jobs, increase wages, boost workforce development and grow the economy. The policy non-profit Tax Foundation has projected that all of these changes, which are included in the current United States Senate plan, would create nearly 1 million new jobs.

The United States is on the cusp of an economic turnaround. Consumer confidence is at a 16-year high and manufacturer optimism is at a 20-year high. There is an expectation being priced into the bond and stock markets that something will happen on tax this year, and it’s imperative that Congress act accordingly. Changing the tax code by Christmas is the single greatest thing we can do to ignite economic growth next year.

This sense of urgency is sorely missing in Congress. In the real world, you have to get things done as fast — or faster — than your competitors. As a former Fortune 500 CEO, I competed with other major companies like Nike and Walmart. In the business world, you don’t think about things theoretically, you act instinctively.

Countries around the world have already lowered their corporate rates. Now the United States is playing catch up and we cannot wait any longer to deliver results. We need to change the tax code to grow the economy, put people back to work, increase wages, and over the long-term, help reduce the national debt. Otherwise we will continue to be outpaced by our competitors and American workers will pay the ultimate price.

Senator David Perdue is the junior Republican Senator for the state of Georgia. He is the only Fortune 500 CEO in Congress, serving as the CEO of companies like Reebok and Dollar General.