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. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder