In the wake of reports that Amazon paid no federal taxes last year, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden took to Twitter yesterday to complain about the tech behemoth’s tax bill:
I have nothing against Amazon, but no company pulling in billions of dollars of profits should pay a lower tax rate than firefighters and teachers. We need to reward work, not just wealth. https://t.co/R6xaN3vXGT
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) June 13, 2019
Amazon wasn’t having it. “We’ve paid $2.6B in corporate taxes since 2016,” it tweeted back. “We pay every penny we owe. Congress designed tax laws to encourage companies to reinvest in the American economy. We have. $200B in investments since 2011 & 300K US jobs. Assume VP Biden’s complaint is w/ the tax code, not Amazon.”
First things first: Amazon does indeed pay taxes. In 2018, it shelled out $1.18 billion in local, state, and international income levies.
Federal corporate taxes are a different story, since Congress specifically devised them with a set of deductions meant to incentivize investment, create jobs, and spur economic growth. And Amazon does all that. In 2017, for instance, it invested $22.6 billion in research and development—the highest of any company that year. That huge number is just one such deduction included in the tax code, which explains how Amazon skirted federal taxes even with an impressive $11 billion in profits.
It’s misleading for Biden to complain that these numbers indicate that the tax code is rewarding wealth instead of work. Research and development are work, after all. If Amazon were getting a tax break for letting money gather interest in the bank, his complaint might make sense, but that’s not what’s going on here.
This isn’t the first time a company has faced ire for its tax history. In response to a barrage of headlines about Netflix paying $0 in taxes, for example, the streaming service pointed out that it had shelled out $131 million in cash levies in 2018. Those taxes were international, which the U.S. credits.
And in May 2019, Delta CEO Ed Bastian defended the airline’s tax filings on the Corner Office podcast:
We’re following the tax code. Delta, as you recall, lost a lot of money. We lost almost $20 billion post-9/11. We went through some very difficult economies over the last 20 years. And so, what we’re doing is we’re able to offset the losses of those years against the profits of today. We have probably only have about another year or so left in those losses, and then at that point then we should start being a cash taxpayer once again. But, you know, these are hard-earned losses, I would say, that we utilize, and our people had real pain attached to them. I am proud that we’ve got the best profit-sharing plan in corporate America for our employees. They get 15% of the profits of the company; $1.3 billion we paid last year, so yeah, I think we’re doing our share.
You could make a reasonable case that it’s better to tax companies at a consistent rate than to try to encourage or discourage different sorts of behavior via the tax code. But it seems inappropriate to condemn companies for taking advantage of the incentives enshrined in the law. And you shouldn’t say a company isn’t paying any taxes when its tax bill is actually more than a billion.