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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.