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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.

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

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.