Labour’s John McDonnell on Google and tax avoidance

I wrote this post yesterday about the recent news about a tax deal reached between HMRC and Google. In the comments a reader alerted me to an interview on Channel 4 News with Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. He’s almost very good in it. As seems usual these days, no Government Minister was willing to be interviewed about Google (no empty chair though again), so Cathy Newman stepped in. She tried her best to trivialise the issue, but McDonnell didn’t do too badly under her line of questioning. He did a reasonable job of linking the issue of tax avoidance with the concept of ‘fairness’. This is the correct way to address the issue in my view, but he went about it the wrong way in one sense, and dropped a clanger in another.

A couple of times he implores companies to “pay your taxes”. The trouble is though, they are paying their taxes according to the law. What he should actually be doing is targeting the anger at George Osborne to “change the tax system”, preferably with a few concrete ideas about how to do that. By focusing on the companies themselves, he lets the Government off in a big way and makes it purely an administrative issue on the part of HMRC, saying they are not doing their job right or are underfunded.

McDonnell’s clanger came when he talked about taxes paying for things he thinks should be funded. By doing this, he sets himself up to fail later on because whenever he suggests a policy, the Tories will either say there is a funding black hole or that taxes will have to go up on ‘hardworking families’ to pay for it. A smarter play would have been to just hype the fairness aspect. Every individual and SME can relate to having to pay a more ‘standard’ rate of tax, so the unfairness of tax avoidance should be an easy sell.

Here’s the video. See what you think.

The blind alley that is tax avoidance

In the last few days, HMRC reached a deal with Google who agreed to pay £130m in corporation tax to cover the last 10 years. George Osborne called announced this on Twitter, saying:

Many people think Google has been unfairly avoiding tax and so are less than happy with George Osborne’s celebratory tone. There have been questions in Parliament today about this deal. Labour have been making a lot of noise about it, and the story could run for a bit longer. The thing is though, this payment from Google is actually an over-payment. They paid all their taxes due under the law. I don’t think anyone is saying Google have broken the law, but they have gone to the limits of what the law allows. Criticisms of this deal focus both on Google and on HMRC’s treatment of Google, but I think both are unfounded. Google is paying all the tax it is required to (or even more) and HMRC is trying to maximise the revenue it collects within the law. If it has extracted this voluntary payment from Google, it’s actually not done too bad.

So is tax avoidance OK then? No it’s not OK. It’s not fair that ordinary people and businesses have to pay more than those who can afford to pay accountants to minimise their tax bills in inventive ways. We need to be clear though. If Google paid £2 billion extra in tax rather than £130m, what would this mean for public services? Could the government then afford to spend more? No, absolutely not. The government can afford to provide public services at any level (within the constraints of inflation) whether it receives tax payments from Google or not.

Should people be able to feel the tax system is fair though? Yes, I think that is a reasonable wish. The best way to achieve this though would be to change the tax laws though, not to try to shame amoral companies into paying more voluntarily. This is why I think the issue is a blind alley for Labour (as it was in the last Parliament). It can generate some headlines, but to make a difference, you need to come up with specific changes to the tax system that would make a real difference.

This is not about how much tax is received in total, it’s about who pays that which is collected and whether that distribution is perceived to be fair. While you link cuts to tax avoidance, you will always be on the wrong side of the argument, because if you accept the link between taxation and spending you are exposed to the retort “how are you going to pay for it?” if you suggest any new spending initiative. It’s not a good strategy.

On tax avoidance and the purpose of taxation

A large section of the public get very worked up (rightly) about tax avoidance. Huge companies like Google or Vodafone seem to be getting away with paying very little tax despite turning over billions. At the same time, the Government are pursuing cuts to discretionary public spending. People often make a connection between the two and argue that if rich companies and individuals paid all the tax due, there would be no need for any cuts, so a ‘left’ solution to the economic crisis is to go after the tax avoiders/evaders in a big way, and all will be OK. I think this view is misguided. Here’s why.

Firstly, there is an implicit assumption that we need those taxes that have been avoided/evaded to pay for government spending, and if we don’t go after that money, then austerity is unavoidable as the Government doesn’t have enough money. As the UK has its own currency though, this cannot be true. It can create new currency at will and can never run out. There is a risk of inflation of course, as with any type of spending (public or private), but if you don’t think repatriating and taxing a sizeable chunk of money stashed offshore would be inflationary, how could creating a similar amount to spend into the economy be inflationary? The money sitting offshore is largely inert, sitting as excess savings. Money can only be inflationary if it is circulating.

This leads on to the other point I want to make which is about the reason we tax at all. If you ask most people why we have taxes, they will say “to pay for government spending on public services”, but as someone who finds myself in agreement with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I don’t think that is really the purpose of taxation at all.

So what is the real purpose of taxation? There are a number of, none of which are to pay for government spending (although confusingly, for a government to spend, it does need to tax):

1. A ‘Chartalist’ view of money (which MMT incorporates) argues that the imposition of a tax by a sovereign government creates a demand for a currency. So because people are required to pay tax in pounds, a minimum level of demand for pounds is assured and people will be willing to do business in pounds so they can obtain enough to pay their tax liabilities. Because pounds have value to those with a tax liability in pounds, they also have value to those who are not taxed in pounds, so it’s not necessary that all users of pounds are taxed.

2. While the government doesn’t need to collect tax before it spends, if it spends without taxing, this will almost certainly cause inflation. We can think of government spending as ‘printing’ money and taxation as ‘unprinting’ money. The tax ‘makes room’ for the government to spend without causing inflation.

3. To correct for ‘externalities’ and discourage ‘harmful’ behaviour. Externalities are costs or benefits generated by an activity which affects non-users of that activity. Examples could be pollution or second-hand smoking. So we might want to heavily tax polluting activities to the point the activity becomes unprofitable or the tax collected is equal to the cost of the clean-up. We might want to tax smoking heavily because it imposes a cost on the health services or gambling because it can lead to crime and contribute to social breakdown.

4. For redistributive purposes. This reason would be why we might wish to take on tax avoidance. Our economy is working as a giant hoover at the moment, sucking up money from the bottom to the top, increasing inequality and leading to more and more people becoming marginalised and stuck in unemployment or low-paid work. Tax is one way of trying to correct for this damaging process.

To sum up then, I am not saying we shouldn’t go after tax avoidance. We absolutely should (although overhauling and simplifying the whole tax system would be more effective in the long run). It’s just that I don’t think it’s an answer to our sluggish economy. Those who avoid/evade tax undermine the tax system by offending people’s sense of fair play. If some are seen to be ‘getting away with it’, it makes maintaining the legitimacy of tax more difficult, and a strong tax base with efficient collection is vital for a functioning mixed economy.

While we need to do something about tax avoidance (preferably through regulation rather than appealing to amoral companies’ morals), we should not oppose austerity by saying “tax the rich more” or “tackle tax avoidance”. Austerity should be opposed on it’s own terms i.e. the government is not running out of money; the markets can’t hold us to ransom, and cutting spending in a recession is a really, really stupid thing to do.