The curious business of taxation

Wages have stagnated, corporations contribute less to Treasury coffers as their profits grow ever va

Something very odd has happened to the world economy in the past decade or so. With the march of globalisation, real wages have more-or-less stagnated in the developed world, yet returns to capital have shot up.

Moreover, as the benefits of growth have started to accrue more to capital-holders than to workers, the share of government revenue from corporate taxation has fallen.

Across the world, governments have found it more and more difficult to tax corporations, and so the tax burden has instead fallen squarely and heavily onto the shoulders of individuals.

Making sense of how and why this has happened is fairly straightforward. With the emergence of industrial capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, governments in the developed world realized a balance had to be struck between the demands of the market and the demands of the broader society in which markets were located.

This realization came sooner in some places – as with Bismarck’s development of the welfare state in Germany in the 1880s.

In Britain, the process of taming the market started perhaps a little later, beginning with Lloyd George’s radical reforms as Chancellor in the early years of the last century, and reaching its zenith in the post-war settlement created by the Attlee Government of 1945-51.

What marked out this earlier stage of the relationship between markets and societies was that it all happened under the roof of one particular state.

A balance could be struck, therefore, between the demands of economic growth and of social protection, because the nation state was in a powerful position to impose whatever regulation it saw as necessary on corporations.

Now globalisation has shattered that balance.

Capital can move jurisdiction at will. The mechanisms of taxation and regulation that can be used by the state have grown useless and atrophied.

States cannot set the terms of operation for corporations that are free to relocate to more benign host countries.

The balance of power has slipped from democratic governments to globally mobile corporations, with states reduced to adopting beggar-my-neighbour policies of tax competition.

It is unsurprising, given this reallocation of political power, that the benefits of the world economy accrue increasingly to the owners of capital rather than to the providers of labour, and that the tax burden in countries like the UK falls disproportionately on individuals rather than corporations.

These problems were illustrated starkly last week, in the Guardian’s investigation into the economics of the world banana industry.

Del Monte, Chiquita and Dole sold over £400 million worth of bananas in Britain last year. Yet these three corporations between them paid only £128,000 tax in the UK.

To put things into perspective, the annual income to the UK Exchequer from taxation of banana companies is less than the income tax paid in a three month period by the Liverpool footballer John Arne Riise (if the copy of his wage slip that has been circulating on the internet is to be believed).

How do these companies manage to pay so little tax? Well, primarily, through the operation of complex webs of financial transactions known as ‘transfer pricing’, whereby semi-imaginary deals between different subsidiaries of the same company are used to move profits from one jurisdiction to another.

As the Guardian article illustrated, the tax avoiding behaviour of UK banana sellers are so Byzantine and complicated that, on its way from Latin America to our supermarket shelves, a bunch of bananas will have passed through virtual balance sheets in the Isle of Man, Ireland, Bermuda, Jersey and the Cayman Islands.

The combination of tax havens and transfer pricing allows large multinational corporations to set their tax rates more or less at will.

As things stand, of course, none of this is actually illegal. Traditionally, the distinction has been drawn between tax evasion, which is the illegal activity of evading one’s full tax liabilities, and tax avoidance, which is the legal activity of arranging an individual’s or corporation’s affairs, within the letter of the law, so as to minimise one’s tax exposure.

Unsurprisingly, it is hard to hold a clear line between the two, and many schemes of tax avoidance shade over towards the borders of tax evasion. Indeed, some writers on tax have coined the term ‘avoision’ to refer to those schemes which fall somewhere in the disputed borderlands.

Large corporations are concerned to avoid downright illegality, and so tend not to practice tax evasion.

But, as the banana example shows, large corporations have no need to get into straightforward illegality when their interests can be served so fully by avoidance strategies using transfer pricing and tax havens.

Tax avoidance is a despicable practice, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is deeply anti-democratic. It frustrates the legislative intentions embodied in tax legislation, in favour of allowing the distribution of ownership in the economy to be determined by the machinations of tax avoiders themselves.

Secondly, tax avoidance ignores basic standards of fairness. Corporations can make money because they have access to our markets, and make use of our workforce, legal system and transport system. Basic fairness surely dictates that corporations therefore have responsibilities to society, and the very minimum of meeting those responsibilities should be meeting the full expectation of a corporation’s tax contribution?

Tax avoidance enables corporate tax avoiders to fail to live up to their side of the ‘social contract’.

As Richard Murphy, Director of Tax Research LLC, succinctly puts it: "Tax is not a cost to a company. It is a distribution out of profits. That puts tax in the same category as a dividend - it is a return to the stakeholders in the enterprise.

"This reflects the fact that companies do not make profit merely by using investors’ capital. They also use the societies in which they operate, whether that is the physical infrastructure provided by the state, the people the state has educated, or the legal infrastructure that allows companies to protect their property rights. Tax is the return due on this investment by society from which companies benefit." (‘Havens and have-nots’, The Guardian 7.11.2007)

Corporations earn their “social license to operate” insofar as they contribute to the general good of the societies in which they exist.

They can only do this when they contribute both towards the economic health of that society and to the democratic aims of that country’s government, through providing revenue to the state that can be used to pursue valuable social policies.

A corporation which shirks its minimal commitment to uphold the basic rules of society, including its taxation rules, fails to earn its justification for existing, and is in need of urgent reform.

I’ve said that the explanation of why corporations contribute so little to society is straightforward.

What is much more difficult is to understand how this situation can be changed. Once markets are global, the individual state has little room for manoeuvre in its efforts to grab social value from internationally mobile capital.

Indeed, it would seem that tax avoidance is the inevitable result of a co-ordination problem among competing firms. If your competitor is avoiding tax, then you will have to do so as well, if you are not to suffer a sizeable commercial disadvantage by comparison. Moreover, tax avoidance is incredibly wasteful: it consumes the efforts of thousands of high-energy, talented, imaginative people; and it does so for a destructive social end.

If tax avoidance could be structurally outlawed, then the enormous energy and imagination that goes into pursuing it could be redeployed to more genuinely productive occupations, and directed towards technical and managerial innovation, instead of just ‘cooking the books’.

There is, so to speak, something of a Prisoner’s Dilemma in operation. We would all be better off if this practice of tax avoidance could be eliminated, but it is individually rational for each corporation to engage in such practices. The questions to be faced, therefore, are why it might be that such practices are currently legally permissible, and how we might bring it about that such practices could be stopped.

This, it seems to me, is one of the most pressing political issues of our day. How can we re-empower our collective institutions, given their powerlessness in the face of globally mobile capital?

From the problems of tax avoidance to the problems of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage market, what we see everywhere is a failure of regulatory power by states when facing rampant corporate and financial interests that value quick profits over social progress or even long-run economic stability.

When society and the market are no longer “under one roof” these sorts of problems emerge. There are two ways in which they could be brought back under the same roof. One is a retrograde policy of closed-borders and protectionism, which would attempt to re-localize markets. This approach is likely to throw away the material gains of globalization along with its problems of capital mobility.

The forward-looking approach is instead to look for transnational regulatory mechanisms, operating at an EU level (in the first instance) or eventually perhaps even at a global level. Through this approach, we might hope to keep the material benefits of globalization, whilst rebalancing the relationship between corporate power and the power of democratic governments and our collective institutions.

Politicians of all parties should be addressing this agenda with much more energy than we have seen.

Moreover, shifting the tax burden away from individual income from work, and towards the owners of capital, is a policy that could be highly popular, and surprisingly easy to sell.

People could be brought around to an agenda of clamping down on corporate tax avoidance if they were told that it meant that they could pay less personal tax if only corporate scroungers and tax-cheats paid their fair share.

In the long run, we need a better global financial architecture. In the shorter term, a raft of specific policies could be pursued, hopefully in co-operation with other nations. Firstly, we need better public information.

Companies should be required by law to publish in full their tax payments in every jurisdiction in which they operate, so that individual citizens and voters can see whether those companies are good corporate citizens or scrounging cheats.

Secondly, we need to clamp down on tax havens, especially those in our own back yard, like Jersey and the Isle of Man. If need be, consideration should be given to refusing legal recognition to corporate entities based in tax havens.

Thirdly, we need to move towards international accounting practices that rule out the most shameless examples of financial hocus-pocus such as ‘transfer pricing’.

Moreover, we need to clamp down very hard indeed on accounting firms that market the more exotic forms of tax avoidance schemes, by subjecting them to much tougher regulatory legislation. (If a softer approach does not work, then perhaps we should consider legislative measures that could lead to a few senior accounting partners being banged-up for a few years, pour encourager les autres.)

Most of all, democratic states need to take the power back before things it's too late.

What this will involve is the reorientation of tax laws so that they take more account of where real economic activity takes place, rather than being too bamboozled by the formal paper structures of imaginary subsidiaries and bogus holding companies.

More aggressive regulation, pursued at a European level, could provide more government income whilst reducing individual tax burdens.

Best of all, perhaps, all those clever and ingenious corporate accountants who spend their working days devising ever more complex ways of defrauding their fellow citizens could instead expend all that ingenuity and intelligence on doing something more productive instead.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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Moby: “The average American IQ is around 98”

Moby, the vegan king of chill-out pop, talks wealth, David Bowie’s hat and the average intelligence of his fellow Americans.

In January 2012, two women walking their nine dogs on the hill beneath the Hollywood sign found a man’s severed head wrapped in a plastic bag. His decomposing feet and hands were discovered nearby. First theories pointed to the work of a Mexican drug cartel, or the murderous Canadian porn actor Luka Magnotta. The story piqued the interest of the electronic dance music mogul Moby, who wrote about it in a New Statesman diary in May this year.

Today, the smell of cedar and pine hits you on the canyon path, which is hot, steep and sandy – an immediate wilderness in one of LA’s most exclusive areas. The Griffith Observatory shines like a strange white temple on the hill. Brad Pitt, a local resident, was doorstepped after the head was discovered: he lives near Moby on the streets of Los Feliz, near Griffith Park, where the only sounds are hedge strimmers and workmen’s radios. Moby’s 1920s mansion is all but obscured by Virginia creeper.

As we sit down at his kitchen table, Moby tells me that the body parts were found to belong to a 66-year-old Canadian flight attendant called Hervey Medellin. Shortly before Medellin’s disappearance, his boyfriend, Gabriel Campos-Martinez, had used a computer in the flat they shared to find an article titled, “Butchering of the human carcass for human consumption”. The head, feet and hands showed signs of having been frozen: the rest of the body was never found. He says it was one of those rare times in life where reality was more intriguing than the conspiracy theories.

Moby, of course, eats no meat. Fifteen minutes’ drive away in the hipster neighbourhood of Silver Lake, his vegan bistro, Little Pine, serves a variety of plant-based dishes, proceeds from which go to animal rights organisations including the Humane Society and Peta. His own music is never played there. We are meeting to talk about his new album – but, he says: “It’s 2016 and people neither buy nor listen to albums. And they certainly don’t listen to the 16th album made by a 51-year-old musician. I don’t care if anyone gives me money for this music or for live shows ever again. Once a record’s released, I couldn’t care less what happens with it. I liked making it, but I don’t care.”

He is currently working his way though the stages of grief outlined by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. To denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance he has added a new phase: Schadenfreude. On the night of the US election, he left the house at 6pm west coast time to watch the coverage with some friends. He checked his usual round of sites on his phone: CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the BBC, politico.com. He was concerned to see that no one was calling any of the early states; with Obama’s election, exit polls suggested the victory by noon. Days earlier, Moby had been predicting humanity’s “wake-up call” in the form of the destruction of Greenland or a zoonotic virus – but not this. He is softly spoken, with a quick laugh and the kind of intelligence that seems to warm him up from the inside when he talks, but today he is angry.

“It is disturbing on so many levels,” he says. “One, that we have elected an inept racist as president. Two, just seeing how dumb and delusional so many Americans are. Because really – in terms of the subsets of people who would vote for Trump – you have to be delusional, or racist, or stupid. I am so confused as to the fact that such a high percentage of Americans are either really stupid or incredibly bigoted.”

The stupidity of Americans is, he says, a matter of “anthropological curiosity” – or simply demographics. “The average American IQ is around 98,” he notes. “So that honestly means – in a vaguely non-pejorative way – that there are a lot of really, really dumb people. The nonsense that people were spouting before the election – that Trump was a good businessman, for example? This phenomenon has been particularly egregious of late: people have an almost adversarial relationship with evidence. Climate-change deniers are another example.”

As a self-described old-timey alcoholic, Richard Melville Hall (nicknamed Moby by his father in honour of his great-great-great-uncle Herman) has a pervasive interest in neurochemistry. He uses it to explain much of the past six months in Western politics. Our failing political systems – the subject, in fact, of the album he doesn’t want to talk about – are underpinned by “a kind of delusional motivation, which is basically to ignore the countless things that are actually going wrong in the world and focus all your attention on things that are arbitrary. In the United States, you have people who have perfectly good jobs in safe communities who are obsessed about Mexico, crime and unemployment. We have these quasi-Orwellian responses to stimuli, and they come from a place of fear and scarcity. Humans are still built to amass as much wealth as possible, and fight off the enemies as quickly as possible, but the only threats are the ones we generate ourselves.”

There’s a dishcloth on the table, a few magazines, a bit of a draught and Moby in a black hoodie pouring two glasses of water.

Fear and scarcity pervade American society, he says, because social policy is an extension of corporate process and “nothing is free from the cadres of professional lobbyists”. Meanwhile the ravenous news consumption that helped drive Trump reflects a human addiction to the “neurochemical jolt” of engaging with the media.

“People have a profound and almost feral attachment to that which makes them feel good in the moment,” he says. “Without thinking of long-term consequences, does their belief give them a shot of dopamine right at this second? If so, they hold on to it. Eating junk food, voting Brexit and voting for Trump.”

 

***

 

Moby is the model of an addictive personality well-practised at controlling itself. He was a fully fledged alcoholic by his early twenties: at ten, he’d been given champagne and made himself the promise, “I always want to feel this good.” Now, he cannot touch a drink, but his modern-day addiction, he says without a beat, is his phone. Every thought is pursued to extremes. He recently released an animated video for a new song, “Are You Lost In the World Like Me?”, showing a procession of grotesque, phone-addicted cartoon characters filming a girl as she throws herself off a skyscraper and hits the ground.

The house is vaguely baronial, airy and open-plan: all dark wood and furniture polish. An Annie Hall poster in the pool house; a coyote postcard on the kitchen wall.

This particular property is a result of serious downsizing: Moby has a habit of buying very big places, doing them up and then moving out. When he was still in New York, he bought a remote mountaintop retreat in Kent Cliffs, 50 miles north of Manhattan. He created a magnificent bedroom of 1,500 square feet with ten skylights – but quickly learned he could only get a decent night’s sleep when he pulled his mattress into the cupboard. He told the New York Times that, living all alone in the big house, he “felt like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane”.

He moved to LA in 2010, swapped vodka for quinoa smoothies and took the keys for another large building – the Wolf’s Lair, the turreted, 1920s Gothic castle in Hollywood once inhabited by Marlon Brando, with the swimming pool historically used for porn movies and the hidden tiki bar. He bought it for $4m and sold it for $12.5m four years later – allegedly to Banksy. He rattled around in that house, too. Right on cue, he tells me: “I felt like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane.”

On the one hand, these were sensible ­investments for the man who’s sold 20 million records; on the other, large impersonal spaces appealed to Moby long before he was in a position to buy them. Raised by his single mother on food stamps and welfare in Darien, Connecticut, he started his adult life squatting an abandoned lock factory, where he could ride his moped around his bedroom, piss into a bottle and read battered Star Trek paperbacks while working on early demo tapes, rather like a ragged, vegan version of the boy in the movie Big.

He was very happy in his penniless state, as he records in his memoir, Porcelain. He’d like to propose something he calls the End of Wealth – but we’ll come back to that.

In the past few years Moby has broken free from the “Beckettian purgatory of touring”. When his biggest-selling album, Play, was released in 1999, his music career was effectively “over”. Before Play, he had changed creative direction, going from progressive house to ambient to thrashy punk – to which he has just returned – and no one knew what to do with him. The only reason he hadn’t been dropped by his UK label, Mute Records, was that its owner, Daniel Miller, was “an old egalitarian socialist”.

Play sampled slave songs of the Deep South – recorded by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the 1940s – and wove them into a backdrop of cerebral chill-out. The songs of pain and emotion took on an eerie neutrality, and TV shows and ad companies came calling. He was approached by Will and Grace and Grey’s Anatomy. At that point, selling records and touring were still more lucrative than licensing a song to TV – and licensing a song to TV was still considered selling out. But Moby considers himself an ugly duckling: “If someone who was once unattractive suddenly gets asked out on loads of dates, of course they say yes a lot.” He licensed every song on Play and it became the soundtrack of the millennium.

His memoir was unusual because it concentrated on the ten-year period before he got famous. It captured his enthusiasm – and his strangeness – at its source and showed him to have a sense of humour that may have passed people by the first time round. “I’m in London! London!” he wrote. “Benny Hill, Joy Division, Peter O’Toole!” He visited the vegan café in Covent Garden.

The book is filled with money: or with the constant, practical concern of not having it. Navigating poverty is an everyday routine: he is an “alchemist” turning used beer bottles into nickels at the recycler, and thence into soya milk and oranges. In his early twenties he becomes a Christian, partly so that he can repeat the Sermon on the Mount at Bible classes in the households of Greenwich Village and “judge” the rich children.

Book two, which Faber & Faber is waiting for, is more difficult. The period of his fame and fortune in the 2000s is too much of a cliché. “Ten years ago I was entitled, narcissistic, bottoming out, alcoholic, selfish and feral. Robbie Williams has done that story, so has Ozzy and Mötley Crüe. Who wants to read that? It’s tautological.”

Instead, he has decided to write about the first ten years of his life. It will look into his relationship with his mother, who loved him but raised him in various drug dens. He was at her side when she died in 1997, but he missed her funeral, having woken late in the morning to discover that at some point in the night he must have got up and set his alarm clock three hours late. He took a taxi to the wake, worrying about the fare, and for reasons he can’t really explain, turned up cracking jokes.

He has a strange nostalgia for the kinds of friendships you have in early adulthood, when everyone is equal, “before that point when someone starts making money and they think they’ve won: they’re going to have access to a different kind of happiness”.

In 2003, when he turned 38, he was famous, wealthy and miserable. “I’ve been able to see and inhabit almost every stratum on the socioeconomic scale, from extreme poverty and obscurity to wealth and fame, and it gives me an insight into it,” he says. “Because a lot of people who experience wealth are born into it, and a lot of people who experience poverty never leave it. I can safely say that for me there has been no causal effect between increased fame and wealth and increased basic happiness and well-being.”

When Moby talks about himself, he applies many apologetic epithets: clichéd, meditating, yoga-loving, mealy-mouthed. In 2007 he developed mobygratis.com, a large online resource offering independent film-makers and film students a licence to use his music for free. If their films are commercially successful, the revenue from licence fees must go to the Humane Society. He says he wants to propose a more rational, evidence-based approach to wealth.

“We are still attached to the idea of the redistribution of wealth,” he says. “As progressive lefties, we’re all brought up to think that is a good idea. In the old days, it meant the difference between eating and not eating. Nowadays the person on $30,000 consumes twice the calories of the millionaire, and has a bigger TV and works fewer hours.

“There is an underlying assumption that if wealth were distributed more evenly then people would be happier, but there is unfortunately very little anthropological or sociological evidence to support that idea, unless there are institutions to support the basic needs of community, like food and shelter. Confusing materialism with happiness is the essence of our culture.”

While west LA is plastic surgery and gold-plated toilets, he says, his own neighbourhood is “David Lynch wearing an old T-shirt and mowing the lawn”. Among the millionaires of Los Feliz, conspicuous consumption is frowned upon. He knows several who live “incredibly austere lives. I was having tea with Jim Carrey the other day. He’s basically just giving everything away. He just realised that owning three planes was stressing him out . . .”

In his New Statesman diary, Moby said that life in LA offered him miles and miles of lavender-scented name-dropping.

“Coldplay played the Rose Bowl recent­ly,” he says. “And the Rose Bowl holds 75,000 people. It’s a struggle for me to sell 2,000. At first, I winced with a little jealousy. But then I thought, ‘If my career was at that Coldplay level, how would that actually affect my daily existence? Would it make my shoes fit better? Would it make the water pressure in my shower better?’ As long as you’ve satisfied the basic hierarchy of needs – enough to eat, clean air to breathe, bears not eating your legs – happiness is all where and how you put your attention.”

***

He goes to his kitchen cupboard and from among the colanders and measuring jugs he extracts a black velvet fedora – size seven, silk-lined, from a London company established in 1879. In green marker around the inside rim are the words “With love from David – Christmas 2005”. Bowie gave it to him over Christmas dinner that year. “It’s the hat that he wore in The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Moby says. “There’s this amazing picture of him wearing it with John Lennon and it’s clearly when he was doing a lot of cocaine.”

Moby lived on Mott Street in Little Italy and Bowie lived on Mulberry Street. “I had a little roof deck, and he had a beautiful roof terrace, and we could wave at each other.” They were neighbours and friends, worked on music together, went on tour together, had barbecues together. He says the title of Bowie’s last album, Black Star, is a reference to the 1960 Elvis Presley song of the same name “about the end of a life” (“And when a man sees his black star,/He knows his time, his time has come”).

“David had been sick for a long time,” he says. “Or ill, as you say in the UK. So, David had been ill for a long time. I was very pleased that . . . after he died, people were asking me, ‘How do you feel?’ and I’m like, ‘Actually, I’m just kind of happy that he lived as long as he did.’ Because I . . . had thought, yeah, I had thought that he was going to die a little before that. So.”

The Radiohead singer Thom Yorke lives just up the street from him in Los Angeles but Moby has never met him “as far as I know”. Apart from Bowie, he claims not to have musician friends.

“Musicians – and I’m sure you’ve encountered this many times – have a sense of self-importance that is off-putting,” he says. “It is very hard to be friends with someone who thinks that just by showing up, they’re doing something special. At the end of the day, you want to say to them, ‘You know what? You wrote a couple of good songs. Let’s put it in perspective.’”

He was born on 11 September 1965, and on his 36th birthday he watched the twin towers burning from his roof deck. He tells me that when the second plane hit and it became clear the first was no accident, he heard “the cumulative effect of ten thousand rooftops covered with people, and the weirdest scream. A scream of horror but also a scream of understanding.”

Fifteen years on, he talks about this year’s politics as a Manichaean thing. “Half the world are motivated by fear and desire to move backwards, and the other half are motivated by optimism and a desire to move forward rationally. It’s religious tolerance versus fundamentalism; it’s racism versus inclusion. I wonder if there’s a way we can make peace with that whole other half of humanity who are holding on to a non-evidence-based approach to the future. But I don’t know what it is.” He has known Hillary Clinton for two decades, was a vocal supporter of hers during the election run and released a pair of anti-Trump tracks for Dave Eggers’s music project 30 Days, 50 Songs.

He says that many celebrity Clinton backers were cautious to come out for her during the primaries “because Bernie supporters wanted to crucify you. Now Trump has united and inspired Democrats more than anything since the Vietnam War.”

The election result, he says, might just be “the equivalent of a crystal meth addict going on one last bender. Maybe this bender will finally convince Americans to stop voting for Republicans. Because they are terrible. There has always been an understanding that if everyone in America voted, there would be no Republican politicians. The reason Republicans win is that most Americans don’t vote.

“Those of us on the left who were brought up to be tolerant of people who had different opinions from us – well that’s great, ­unless the opinions are bigoted and wrong. If someone is a climate-change denier, they are wrong. If someone voted for Brexit, they are wrong. If someone voted for Trump, they are wrong. There is a lot of ambiguity in the world, but not about these things.”

The clock ticks towards 11.15am and Moby, ever punctual, is done.

“These Systems Are Failing” is out now on Little Idiot/Mute

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump