Nick Cohen is one of my favourite writers but he really has come a cropper with his latest piece on Starbucks and its taxes for the Spectator.
In the past, right-wingers argued for lower taxes and a smaller state and left-wingers argued for higher taxes and a bigger state. Both agreed, however, that you had to pay what taxes the state set.
But that is what almost everyone still thinks. A company which doesn’t “pay what taxes the state set(s)” is engaging in tax evasion, a criminal activity, and I’m not aware of many people supporting that. Starbucks, to be clear, paid every penny of tax it was legally obliged to and if Cohen has information to the contrary he ought to contact HMRC.
If you think Starbucks should pay more tax then increase its legal obligations. This is a point of view Cohen dismisses, saying “We are not talking about a couple moving assets to keep their tax bill down, but vast corporate structures hiding money in piratical tax havens”
First, notice the loaded language. Cohen could have written “We are not talking about a couple moving assets to keep their tax bill down, but vast corporate structures moving assets to keep their tax bill down” Less emotive sure, but also more accurate and more helpful analytically.
Second, consider the thinking behind it. It’s ok when one set of people do it but when another set of people does it it’s not, that we should apply one law to one set of people but another set to others. This is a major blind spot for a man who considers himself the beleaguered tribune of a dying, liberal England.
The whole piece is an example of the moralistic guff which fogs the debate about tax in this country. One of the silliest phrases in current public policy discourse is ‘aggressive tax avoidance’, which is a little like complaining that someone is ‘aggressively’ quitting smoking when they stop as a result of the tax on cigarettes going up.
Cohen, for example, writes “A good rule of thumb in all circumstances is to ask whether you can defend your actions in public”. Actually Nick, in business that’s a pretty terrible rule of thumb. If you are wondering whether to invest or not you need information upon which to base the calculation of whether that investment will be worth it. Considering that tax is going to effect the return on investment it therefore helps to have a firm idea of what taxes are likely to be. This is why taxes are levied on the basis of laws everyone knows in advance. If we dispensed with taxes raised in this way and, instead, investors had to base their tax calculations based on “What Nick Cohen might think is fair”, well, it’s a far less quantifiable variable.
And there’s the moral question. Can a man who wrote ‘Reports from the Sickbed of Liberal England’ really be advocating the rule of man (himself) or the mob (UK Uncut) over the rule of law? Apparently so.
We have a large and persistent problem in Britain with youth unemployment. Many unemployed youths simply lack the skills to command high wages and so, until either that changes or until capital can be applied to make their labour more productive a job somewhere like Starbucks is probably the best gateway to employment. And if we want to tackle youth unemployment we ought not to be chasing these companies out of the country.
Nick Cohen gleefully instructs David Cameron to “point [Kris Engskov, Starbuck’s UK managing director] westwards, and tell him to keep going until he reaches Heathrow” and writes that “From the point of view of the Exchequer, it is a matter of supreme indifference whether Starbucks stays or goes” But it might be a matter of rather less indifference to Starbucks’ staff. Or maybe Cohen can get those unemployed baristas jobs writing for his tax efficient employers at The Guardian?