Why Starbucks can't dump its tax bill on the public

No company, even one as big as Starbucks, can simply decide how much profit it makes.

On Wednesday I received the most brilliantly headlined press release I've seen since (yes, this actually happened) the one announcing that god had returned to Earth, and was seeking corporate sponsorship:

'Starbucks are Bastards for not paying Tax in this Country', says Tyrrells Crisps and Chase Vodka Founder

The text of the statement, from founder William Chase, is disappointingly bereft of further expletives, but he does use other strong language. "Our hard earned money". "Patronising". "Laughable". "Theft". And this, remember, isn’t an activist speaking, it’s an entrepreneur (albeit one whose businesses find it rather harder to decide their own tax rate). The rage against corporate tax avoidance clearly goes way beyond the usual suspects.

But it's not universal. Some argue, in fact, that any attempt to minimise such avoidance will blow up in our face. With apologies both for singling her out, and for reducing her argument to one Tweet, here's libertarian blogger Charlotte Gore on Twitter last Thursday:

Starbucks board will have to make the money elsewhere. It's going to be the staff or the customers that ultimately pay.

This is an argument you hear quite a lot – that any attempt to close loopholes in the tax system will actually hurt the general public. That the £20 million tax Starbucks UK has now magnanimously decided to pay means £20 million of extra charges dumped onto the rest of us.

The problem is, it's nonsense.

Actions do have consequences, of course, and any attempt to squeeze a company probably will result in its attempting to recoup that money elsewhere. Starbucks doesn't answer to the public, it answers to its owners: whatever we may think of this fact, shareholder value will always be management’s first priority.

But the libertarian argument is nonsense, nonetheless. It's implicitly based on two dubious assumptions: that multinationals like Starbucks are like vengeful tribal gods, who can never be influenced, only placated; and that the state is utterly powerless before them.

Starbucks' board will try to recoup any extra taxes it pays elsewhere. But the key word there is try. They can jack up their prices, dumping the charge onto customers – but that, all the laws of economics says, would mean fewer sales, and so less profit.

They can lean on the wage bill, eating into paid lunch breaks and sick leave – are trying, in fact, to do just that. But we don't know how it'll play out. Bosses don’t give staff good working conditions out of the goodness of their hearts, but because it’s better for their bottom line. Worse staff performance, or the bad publicity generated by this latest crackdown, might end up costing the company more than it saves.

Then again, it might not. But the point remains: even the most powerful multinational doesn't operate in a vacuum. Managers may wish to dump its corporation tax bill onto its customers or staff. But they might have no choice but to pass it back to its shareholders.

No company, even one as big as Starbucks, can simply decide how much profit it makes – any more than it should decide how much tax it pays.

UK Uncut supporters protest outside a Starbucks coffee shop near Regent Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.