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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. He is on Twitter, almost continously, as @JonnElledge.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era