Tackling corporate tax abuse

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Martin O'Neill has a thoughtful piece in the New Statesman on the problems of corporate taxation.

Inspired by the article in the Guardian on bananas, he says:

A corporation which shirks its minimal commitment to uphold the basic rules of society, including its taxation rules, fails to earn its justification for existing, and is in need of urgent reform.

He then tackles the thorny issue of what can be done about this, or as he puts it:

How can we re-empower our collective institutions, given their powerlessness in the face of globally mobile capital?

I suggest you read it in full, but first he rejects one option:

When society and the market are no longer "under one roof" these sorts of problems emerge. There are two ways in which they could be brought back under the same roof. One is a retrograde policy of closed-borders and protectionism, which would attempt to re-localise markets. This approach is likely to throw away the material gains of globalisation along with its problems of capital mobility.

The forward-looking approach is instead to look for transnational regulatory mechanisms, operating at an EU level (in the first instance) or eventually perhaps even at a global level.

Curiously, in discussion with informed sources on world tax last week I heard this option rejected: I believe the informed source wrong. These things will be possible, if not yet.

And his suggestion for what they should do:

1) Firstly, we need better public information. Companies should be required by law to publish in full their tax payments in every jurisdiction in which they operate, so that individual citizens and voters can see whether those companies are good corporate citizens or scrounging cheats.

2) Secondly, we need to clamp down on tax havens, especially those in our own back yard, like Jersey and the Isle of Man. If need be, consideration should be given to refusing legal recognition to corporate entities based in tax havens.

3) Thirdly, we need to move towards international accounting practices that rule out the most shameless examples of financial hocus-pocus such as 'transfer pricing'.

4) Moreover, we need to clamp down very hard indeed on accounting firms that market the more exotic forms of tax avoidance schemes, by subjecting them to much tougher regulatory legislation.

5) What this will involve is the reorientation of tax laws so that they take more account of where real economic activity takes place, rather than being too bamboozled by the formal paper structures of imaginary subsidiaries and bogus holding companies.

And what will the win be::

Best of all, perhaps, all those clever and ingenious corporate accountants who spend their working days devising ever more complex ways of defrauding their fellow citizens could instead expend all that ingenuity and intelligence on doing something more productive instead.

If only my profession shared that aspiration.