Monday, September 05, 2016

Taxing the Empire

Tax gets complicated in a world beyond borders. Multi-national companies are the new Empires. They have flexible borders, are continually expanding, and cross multiple ethnic groups forming a common supra-culture, with a common language and a common purpose. 

Taxes are still raised by nation states. Nation States arose out of a demand for sovereignty. The World Wars of the last century saw an end (/pause) to thousands of years of empire building. Empires were normally ideas. 'Sapiens' talks of Cyrus the Great as the first Empire builder who saw the role of government as improving the lot of the conquered rather than focusing on enriching the conquerors. He was famous for respecting and supporting the culture and religions of his subjects. Nation states are arguably a step back towards us narrowing our identity. Protecting our self-determination but increasing the walls between them and us. Self-determination was the intellectual tool used to justify Apartheid.

That gets problematic when it comes to Tax. Many multi-national companies are only notionally American. They only get taxed on their profits when they are returned to the US. A company like Colgate gets more than 80% of its revenue from outside America. It is a truly global company. Since we have moved to a multi-national world in terms of free markets - movement of goods, services and capital - tax laws have struggled to keep up. See the letter from Tim Cook to his customers after a recent European Commission Tax decision. There are widely ranging estimates of about $2 trillion dollars in cash held offshore that only gets taxed if brought back into America. This doesn't mean there is a big pool of Scrooge McDuck style gold sitting idle. Money isn't a thing, it is an idea. It doesn't literally sit doing nothing.

What it does mean is that any redistributing or government directed spending doesn't happen. In a closed Nation state, tax is much simpler to see where value has been added. When there are teams working together across the world to make things happen, attaching which bit of the value has been added where is philosophical rather than scientific. Value is personal.

Gaining cross national agreement is very difficult. Many Brits who voted to leave the EU chose to do it because they felt like they weren't controlling their own destiny - a big part of that is they felt they weren't controlling their own laws and taxes. A push back on Empires (yes, the irony of the head of the last Empire pushing back on lost control isn't lost).

Universal Basic Income could be one way to solve this. It may sound Utopian, but a UBI could be seen as the opposite of tax for individuals, but still a tax for companies. It effectively would make all Global Citizens participatory owners in multi-national companies. It means we don't have to answer the impossible question of how to cut up the pie. Capitalism isn't actually very good at that. It is good at pricing the pie. It solves difficult questions by pricing the things it can as cogs. The balance is left to the owners.

The number one rule in capitalism is be the owner. A Universal Basic Income makes everyone an owner.

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