Don't tax Amazon. Tax Amazon's shareholders

Corporations dodge tax. So go for their owners instead.

Tax avoidance is a problem which stubbornly refuses to be fixed. Even just defining our terms is problematic, with nearly every definition wide-ranging enough to cover all avoidance also including things which nobody finds objectionable.

And even if you could define it well, there's the fact that tax avoidance is, by its nature, legal. While some avoidance is truly, obviously, taking advantage of sloppy phrasing in statutes and judicial rulings, most of it exists in the grey area where it would be impossible to "tighten up" the law without also removing those deductions or exemptions which were supposed to be there in the first place. (For an example of this in action, look no further than the pasty tax debacle.)

The worst tax avoidance is undoubtedly in the corporate sector. While there are terrible examples of avoidance amongst individuals, like the New Yorker's examination of hedge-fund manager Julian Robertson's tax affairs, they are always hampered by the fact that actually offshoring personal income – the most effective form of avoidance, and the hardest to fight with the law – is tricky. People, after all, have a physical location. Some may become the infamous "non-doms", but to do that you have to spend half the year outside the country. That isn't something which can be achieved by just hiring a canny accountant.

While moralising can convince the worst corporate offenders to pay their fair share – as Starbucks finally agreed to do – it can't work every time. Some companies don't care about their image, others manage to hide their avoidance.

And so we come back to patching up the holes in the system. But with offshoring, some holes seem nearly unpatchable. For all the stirling work of campaigners like UK Uncut and Tax Research UK, the world is still no closer to agreeing on the best way to deal with multinationals which engage in creative "tax planning".

But there's one possibility: forget about them.

The reason why involves looking at the concept of tax incidence. If you accept that the only question of tax that matters is which people pay it, then corporation tax becomes a complicated issue. As a tax alters the bottom line of a company, one of two things will happen: either it will pass the costs on, or it won't. If it doesn't, then the actual people hit by the tax are the shareholders of the company, who see its profitability decline. (This is largely the intended outcome of campaigns against tax dodging.)

But if it does past the costs on, then either its customers and employees must bear the brunt, in the form of increased costs or decreased wages, or other businesses (such as suppliers or contractors) do, and the whole equation starts again.

(It is important to point out that the argument that all costs must be levied on a person at some point is not without its critics. After all, businesses have savings, assets, property and rights; who is to say that they can't be counted as people for the purpose of taxation? And the assumption at the heart of the argument is one which must be taken as faith. It's just as easy to argue, using the same logic, that the costs of all personal taxation must be borne at some point by businesses.)

Tax incidence varies business-to-business and over time. In the early 70s, when it was starting up in Washington state, Starbucks' tax incidence was almost certainly mostly upon its shareholders. Labour was expensive, coffee was a niche product, and investors in a small start-up were probably in for the long haul. Now that Starbucks has access to vast pools of low-wage labour and customers willing to pay up to $7 for a cup, it is far more likely that they will bear the brunt of much excess tax. (Although, of course, as John Elledge rightly points out, even then, it's not certain; and if there's anything we've learned from Lisa Pollack's investigation into the matter at the FT, it's that Starbucks' publicity machine holds a lot of sway within the company)

But here's the thing: if we want to tax just the shareholders of a company, we already have a way to do it. We tax dividends, and we tax capital gains. Increasing those taxes hits the people we hope would take the brunt of corporation taxes anyway.

So here's my proposal: scrap corporation tax, and whack up those two to make up the revenue gap.

There would be two big transfers inherent in this change: the first would be from shareholders in companies which pay little tax to shareholders in companies which pay a lot of tax. Since that's just another way to say "cracking down on tax avoidance", it need not upset us too much.

The other is more uncertain. By and large, international companies have international ownership. Those based in Britain with the majority of their shareholders overseas would be better off; those based overseas with the majority of their shareholders in Britain would be worse off. If the logic of the Conservatives, who have already cut corporation tax significantly, holds, we can expect that latter group to move headquarters here to take advantage of the rates; and if it doesn't, then we can expect the shareholders to sell up and buy into British companies.

There's a reason CGT and dividend taxes are so low, of course, which is to encourage investment. But since we would expect pre-tax shareholder income to go up, investment ought to still be compelling. It would just be targeted more effectively at companies which could actually make a profit, rather than those which could only make a profit if they were avoiding tax which their competitors were not.

If we can stop the biggest corporations avoiding tax, we ought to. But if trying to tax aggregations of people which can twist across country borders with ease is permanently difficult, perhaps we ought to stop trying it, and do something better instead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle