The publication of the Panama Papers is a bombshell, though the fallout is being felt much more in countries such as Iceland than in the United States. It’s true that the revelations about offshore tax havens have mentioned domestic counterparts such as Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming, but officials in those states don’t seem to think that any action needs to be taken. As the headline of an article in the BNA Daily Tax Report put it: STATES GIVE GROUP SHRUG TO PANAMA PAPERS.
One reason for the tepid reaction is that the criticisms have been heard before. As BNA points out, a 2006 report from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) listed the three states as being especially appealing to those seeking to create shell companies.
Another basis for complacency by the states is that their practices are part of a long and unfortunate tradition in the United States politely called federalism, but which is really a race to the bottom when it comes to oversight of corporations and the wealthy.
This trend dates back to the 19th Century, when the efforts of tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller to create vast industrial empires came up against the fact that state laws governing corporate charters put restrictions on the size and scope of a corporation’s activities, including the ownership of out-of-state companies. Rockefeller’s flagship firm Standard Oil of Ohio tried to get around this by creating the Standard Oil trust, in which affiliates were nominally independent but were actually controlled by a centralized board chosen by Rockefeller. Similar trusts were created in a variety of other industries.
Standard Oil’s transparent effort to circumvent state law was eventually struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court, but by that time Rockefeller and other robber barons had a new tool at their disposal: the willingness of some states to water down their chartering regulations to make them more attractive to big business.
The pioneer of this practice was New Jersey, which adopted a series of legislative measures from the 1870s through the 1890s to make its regulations more business-friendly. During this period, New Jersey became the destination of choice for trusts looking to legitimize themselves by reincorporating in a state that had no problem with bigness. That position was reinforced after Standard Oil made the Garden State its new base of operations. Muckraker Lincoln Steffens took to calling New Jersey the “traitor state.”
Other states sought to get in on this action. In 1899 Delaware adopted a corporation law that was even looser than New Jersey’s and had lower incorporation fees and franchise taxes. After New Jersey later changed course and went back to stricter corporation laws, it was Delaware that became the new mecca of corporations and has remained so to the present day.
Looser chartering procedures not only helped large corporations get larger but also made it easier for both businesses and wealthy individuals to set up the kind of shell companies highlighted in the Panama Papers. The ability and willingness of states to compete with one another to offer the most corporate-friendly practices goes well beyond company formation and governance.
Two areas in which the effects have been most pernicious are economic development and labor relations. Starting in the 1930s but especially during the past few decades, states have been willing to hand over larger and larger “incentive” packages to corporations to lure investments. For example, in 2014, following a multi-state competition, tax haven Nevada gave away nearly $1.3 billion in taxpayer revenue to get Tesla Motors to locate an electric-car battery plant in the state.
Some states also lure companies with the promise of weak or non-existent labor unions. Ever since the Tart-Hartley Act of 1947, states have had the right to enact laws outlawing union security provisions in collective bargaining agreements. These so-called right-to-work laws tend to weaken the ability of unions to organize while saddling existing unions with lots of free riders who don’t contribute to the cost of running the organization.
It’s widely understood that the notion of states’ rights is often a smokescreen for racial discrimination, but it’s also part of what enables other retrograde practices such as union-busting, corporate welfare and tax dodging.