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A woman holds a Starbucks takeaway cup in London. Starbucks's reputation among consumers in Britain has been hit by wave of criticism of its tax affairs from politicians and the media. (SUZANNE PLUNKETT/REUTERS)
A woman holds a Starbucks takeaway cup in London. Starbucks's reputation among consumers in Britain has been hit by wave of criticism of its tax affairs from politicians and the media. (SUZANNE PLUNKETT/REUTERS)

The moral vacuum of tax avoidance Add to ...

In recent months, people and their politicians around the world have been astonished to learn that big companies and billionaires will go to extraordinary lengths to pay lower taxes.

Thanks to the work of the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, we have discovered that some of the world’s most prominent public figures have banked their fortunes in international tax havens, beyond the scrutiny of their national treasuries.

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Meanwhile, Tom Bergin, my Reuters colleague, has become the scourge of the top U.S. multinationals by revealing their low effective tax rate in Britain. Mr. Bergin has found that between 1998 and 2012, Starbucks paid less than £9-million (about $14-million U.S.) in British taxes while registering sales of more than £3-billion. According to statutory filings, Google made $18-billion in revenue in Britain from 2006 to 2011, and paid just $16-million in taxes.

Open the door to the top executives’ suite and you will hear howls of rage over the backlash these revelations have provoked. There is, from the corporate point of view, something a little disingenuous happening here. After all, countries, states and cities have spent the past several decades competing to set the lowest corporate tax rates in an effort to attract business. The fact that multinationals would respond to these incentives and turbo-charge them with some international tax arbitrage is about as shocking as the discovery of gambling in Casablanca.

The principle that you should seek to make the most money you can, provided you do not break the law, is the operating software of modern capitalism. In the hyper-competitive 21st century, where every Apple is only one algorithm away from becoming a BlackBerry, paying the lowest possible taxes is not the exceptional policy of a particularly greedy chief executive – it is what every executive seeks to do to keep his or her job.

That was what Andrew Kassoy, a former private equity investor, explained at a recent panel discussion at the Stern School of Business at New York University (of which I was the moderator).

Mr. Kassoy, who now leads a non-governmental organization working to transform corporate behaviour, argued that publicly traded U.S. companies are “actually obliged to maximize their externalities” – economist-speak for behaviour that harms the wider community – if that would increase their bottom line. He does not think that is a good thing, and, increasingly, neither do a lot of other people.

He’s not the only one who is worried. In a recent interview, I asked Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney about the ability of rich people and big companies to avoid taxes in a world of global capital flows.

“It is demonstrably a problem,” said Mr. Carney, who becomes governor of the Bank of England on July 1. “If there’s an ability to fundamentally, whether on a personal or a corporate level, persistently avoid tax, the consequence … is that the burden of fiscal adjustments … falls more heavily on those who pay their fair share. And they end up paying more than their fair share as a consequence.”

Closing the tax loopholes or tightening the lax tax enforcement that have deprived European treasuries of multinational corporate tax revenue is politically difficult and technically complicated. But what is even harder is figuring out how to better align the behaviours of the business titans with the greater good of the community as a whole. After all, the companies that have been minimizing their European tax bills are not the bailed-out fat cats of Wall Street or the crony capitalists of the emerging markets. These are the entrepreneurs of the U.S. West Coast, who brought cappuccinos and search capabilities to the global masses.

In a new book, The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, University of Michigan business professor Mark Mizruchi contends that the forsaking of responsibility for the wider community is a big shift in the behaviour of U.S. business, and a central reason for the country’s political and economic malaise. He concludes his book with the hope that the corporate elite will rediscover “enlightened self-interest” and reform themselves.

At the NYU conference, Clay Christensen, one of the leading thinkers about the disruptive impact of the technology revolution, suggested that belief in a God who holds us accountable in the afterlife would make captains of industry more civically responsible today.

Mr. Christensen is right that to change behaviours we need to change incentives. Hellfire and damnation is one option; another is rewriting the rules of engagement between companies, countries and shareholders.

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