Starbucks isn’t wrong to avoid tax, the law is wrong. A universal payment tax would fix it.

Tax avoidance is in the news a lot at the moment. Maybe that is partly because tax as it is now is seen to be unfair and unjust so people feel less bad about trying to avoid it.  In response, the idiots in charge of our taxing seem to think they should ask people and companies to pay taxes voluntarily.

Companies usually exist to make money, and it would be bad management to voluntarily pay more tax anywhere than is required by law. The world offers a wide range of tax regimes and of course a multinational corporation will do its best to exploit the different rates. But governments are meant to be in charge of law, that’s what they are for. It is their job to ensure that the law is fair and that everyone has to pay their share of taxes. But they aren’t doing that at all well. Governments are at fault, not companies or individuals that choose to pay the (creatively) legal minimum. The tax net may be full of holes, and companies are walking through them, but it is government that designed, made and maintains the net. 

Companies such as Starbucks can legally avoid paying UK tax by paying fees for licenses, use of the brand name and other intellectual property to overseas companies in low tax areas. The value and price of intellectual property can be set at pretty much any arbitrary level, and it can be moved around the world instantly so it is an especially useful tool for tax avoidance schemes. We have been in the information economy for decades now, and it is a reflection of competence and extreme sluggishness of the tax authorities that tax law hasn’t kept up. Starbucks have paid their due taxes, there is just a huge mismatch between what is due and what should be due in a competent tax regime.

It isn’t an impossible task to tax properly. There are lots of ways of taxing things so that all companies pay a fair contribution. The situation now is simply ridiculous and government should pick a mechanism and implement it quickly.

The most obvious perhaps is that the government could regulate that all companies must pay tax on the same proportion of their global profits as the proportion of their revenue that is earned in the UK. And that must include web sales and downloads, and most importantly, any intellectual property such as licenses. If Starbucks buys licenses to operate in their particular way, the license sellers would pay the appropriate taxes on the corresponding proportion of their global profits too.

Of course, that would get complicated if overseas suppliers could simply refuse to pay or even to surrender data on their accounts. But that can be solved by allowing accountants to offset purchases only from licensed companies. The responsibility to either pay the tax themselves, or buy from someone also paying tax here would then stay with Starbucks.

Another way of ensuring companies pay proper tax would be to demand payments based on an industry average cost pattern. This would be subject to arguments and would be more complex so would be more expensive to administer.

A third way is using a purchase tax in place of corporation tax. Every company would pay the purchase tax on everything they buy. If it appears as a cost on the UK balance sheet, purchase tax must be paid on it. What a company does overseas should be of no concern of the UK authorities, but if they want to put a UK operating license from a subsidiary or partner on their UK accounts, tax must be paid on it. If this tax is set at the right level so that the total government tax take stays the same overall, the economy should benefit through simplicity and administrative cost reduction.

It is possible to have different tax levels for different kinds of purchase, exceptions, special cases and so on, but each paragraph of extra regulation is another than can be interpreted and used by creative accountants and lawyers.

One of the implications of having a simple purchase tax is that there is a huge incentive to simplify the value chain into as few links as possible. If money is taxed each time it leaves a company, then having fewer company boundaries in the value chain would be cheaper. Keeping as much of the value chain in house as possible would reduce this, but there would be strong pressure to allow reclaiming of purchase taxes across boundaries in the value chain. Of course, that is getting quite close to what VAT is, and we are all familiar with that already. Companies collect VAT on their sales and claim back VAT on purchases. It therefore doesn’t discriminate against companies on the basis of value chain design. It just collects tax on the difference in value between the raw materials and finished products.

So, why not abolish corporation tax entirely and switch to a refined version of VAT, at a higher rate if need be? Why indeed. This refined VAT would be payable on all purchases, from anywhere, but we could modify it so it could still be reclaimed by businesses for purchase from other UK VAT paying suppliers. The important thing is notionally to seal the borders so that all purchases in the UK are taxed. I am not personally in favour of making this refined VAT reclaimable, I think that draws an unjustifiable distinction between companies and individuals that can then be exploited by company owners and is the source of much tax evasion even today. I think facilitating virtual companies and optimising end to end value chain design is the best approach.

Extending this approach, why not also replace income tax and national insurance by a sort of VAT on salary? That would amount to a flat tax, but people who get paid more would pay more tax too, and that in itself is already an improvement to today. If this VAT also was applied to payment of dividends, capital gains, bank interest, inheritance and all other forms of payments, then the person on the ordinary payroll would pay the same rate as the owner of the company, someone selling their shares, the shareholders, inheritors, everyone. What’s not to like? Rich people pay more, poor people pay less. Everything is simple, all loopholes removed. All outgoings from companies taxed at the same level, and all forms of income ditto. A single page of tax law to replace 18000 pages. People living off shore wouldn’t escape any more because their UK-sourced income is taxed at its UK point of payment. Their income from other countries is the affair of those other countries. Just like usually happens today, the money is taxed when coming into the company as a sale, and once when paid out to someone as wages or dividends. But twice would be a huge improvement on the hundreds of times money is taxed today via all the hidden taxes. This revised system would be far simpler and more transparent and if it is kept simple and transparent, with no added loopholes, people would see its fairness. The more secure net means that everyone would pay less tax except those who had previously been avoiding it.

A wannabe tax-avoiding ‘consultant’ might arrange to work for free in the UK, with no UK payments to be taxed, paid instead by an offshore company into an off-shore account, but to avoid tax, that money would need to have come from an overseas operation. If it came from UK profits, it would have been taxed when the money came into the company, and again when it was paid out to the overseas one. People paid by overseas companies out of overseas money are not the UK’s affair. As far as the UK is concerned, they are working for free.

Smarter people than I have calculated that we’d need to set the rate to take about 20% of each transaction. Just a bit more than VAT already is then (VAT adds 20% on so takes 20/120ths=16.67%). So, if that is right, and we seal all the holes and charge it on everything, we can all look forward to a country with no other taxes except a slightly refined form of VAT, that is paid on everything.

So it wouldn’t matter how you got your money. 20% would be paid when you are given it and on any interest the banks pay you on the remaining 80% from saving it. When you spend it, another 20% is gone, leaving 64% of actual value. This compares favourably with today where hundreds of taxes hide away unobserved. They should all go.

I am greatly in favour of the simplicity this offers, but it isn’t without problems. What about selling shares, or houses? If you have to pay 20% on the full cost every time you buy a new house that would greatly penalise people who move often. It also cripples the stock market if people pay 20% each time they swap shares. People would demand exceptions, but each time exceptions are created, new opportunities to avoid tax arise, that can be exploited by clever accountants. So any exceptions would have to be few and well designed with tax avoidance avoidance in mind.

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