How Can We Tax Footloose Multinationals?

Apple has become the poster child for corporate tax avoidance, with its legal claim that a few hundred people working in Ireland were the real source of its profits, and then striking a deal with that country’s government that resulted in its paying a tax amounting to .005% of its profit. Apple, Google, Starbucks, and companies like them all claim to be socially responsible, but the first element of social responsibility should be paying your fair share of tax. If everyone avoided and evaded taxes like these companies, society could not function, much less make the public investments that led to the Internet, on which Apple and Google depend.

.. Transfer pricing relies on the well-accepted principle that taxes should reflect where an economic activity occurs. But how is that determined? In a globalized economy, products move repeatedly across borders, typically in an unfinished state: a shirt without buttons, a car without a transmission, a wafer without a chip. The transfer price system assumes that we can establish arms-length values for each stage of production, and thereby assess the value added within a country. But we can’t.

The growing role of intellectual property and intangibles makes matters even worse, because ownership claims can easily be moved around the world. That’s why the United States long ago abandoned using the transfer price system within the US, in favor of a formula that attributes companies’ total profits to each state in proportion to the share of sales, employment, and capital there. We need to move toward such a system at the global level.

How that is actually done, however, makes a great deal of difference. If the formula is based largely on final sales, which occur disproportionately in developed countries, developing countries will be deprived of needed revenues, which will be increasingly missed as fiscal constraints diminish aid flows. Final sales may be appropriate for taxation of digital transactions, but not for manufacturing or other sectors, where it is vital to include employment as well.

Some worry that including employment might exacerbate tax competition, as governments seek to encourage multinationals to create jobs in their jurisdictions. The appropriate response to this concern is to impose a global minimum corporate-income tax. The US and the European Union could – and should – do this on their own. If they did, others would follow, preventing a race in which only the multinationals win.

.. Politics matters: the multinationals’ objective is to gain support for reforms that continue the race to the bottom and maintain opportunities for tax avoidance. Governments in some advanced countries where these companies have significant political influence will support these efforts – even if doing so disadvantages the rest of the country. Other advanced countries, focusing on their own budgets, will simply see this as another opportunity to benefit at the expense of developing countries.