The Problem with the Low-Tax Backlash: Rethinking Corporate Tax Policies to Adjust for Uneven Reputational Risks
When a major corporation is found to be paying little or no taxes, public backlash and media furor over the issue may ensue. Some governments may well be just fine with it, while others like U.S. may take steps to ensure companies pay more tax. Sometimes, companies being in a non-taxpaying position properly reflects appropriate tax policy. That explanation, however, does not sell lattés, which is why in 2012, after the British public grew outraged over the discovery that Starbucks was paying no corporate taxes in the U.K., the coffee retailer actually volunteered to just write a cheque to the government. The reputational damage to Starbucks’ brand, the company calculated, was not worth the money it was saving in avoiding taxes, even if it was doing so perfectly legally. The fear of this kind of reputational damage can foil the very taxation policies that governments design specifically as a means to tax corporations fairly, efficiently and competitively. It may be good tax policy to allow corporations various deductions, or the ability to carry forward or carry back losses, but it can be politically vexatious. U.S. President Barack Obama demonstrated that explicitly when he suggested certain American companies using so-called tax inversions to relocate their headquarters to low-tax jurisdictions, were failing in their “economic patriotism.” Yet more multinationals than ever are legally and quite appropriately using tax strategies to minimize their taxes in various jurisdictions to the point where they are paying little to no corporate tax. For some corporations, the risk of public backlash is greater than it is for others: Starbucks and Facebook, being consumer-facing companies with a great deal of brand goodwill, have a lot more at risk than do Pfizer and Oracle. This risk makes the playing field for taxation less level, jeopardizing the fundamental tax principle of horizontal equity — that those of similar means should pay similar taxes. If Starbucks feels pressured to pay extra taxes, then the tax system is not functioning optimally. This emerging reputational risk is a new dimension governments are going to have to take into account when designing tax policy. Understanding that there is more to consider than the financial implications of a tax policy should and will have an effect on the way policies are designed. One important approach that governments should take is to avoid the practice of targeted tax incentives, such as tax holidays or accelerated depreciation. The reputational risk will see some companies willing to take the government up on tax breaks, but others may prefer to pass. Better to focus on more general corporate tax reductions, which will be less distortive and unfair to those companies at greater risk of reputational damage. In some jurisdictions, governments could also consider requiring some level of minimum taxation (as Ontario does), ensuring that every profitable company pays at least something every year. This will have an impact on economic efficiency, but it will help level the playing field for all corporations, regardless of their varying degrees of reputational risk. The most effective measure still available to governments is one they should be pursuing anyway: tax levels that are internationally competitive and, therefore, broaden the corporate tax base while promoting neutrality. Canada’s several targeted programs — such as accelerated depreciation for manufacturing equipment and a generous capital-cost allowance for liquefied natural gas plants — only hurt neutrality. They also make it more likely that a particular company may find itself in an uncomfortable controversy, as Starbucks did. Focusing on international tax competitiveness, rather than targeted tax breaks, is the way to build the fairest system for all companies, whether they are nervous about their reputation or not.
The following is the copyright statement of SPPP.
Copyright © <Author name> <year>. This is an open-access paper distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 4.0, which allows non-commercial sharing and redistribution so long as the original author and publisher are credited.
Publication Copyright and Licensing
The following guidelines and information, provided in six sections, are intended for authors (the “Author”) who are invited to write a paper (the “Work”) for The School of Public Policy Publications (the “Publisher”). The rights and responsibilities conveyed in the SPP Author Agreement will only apply once your paper is accepted for publication. At that point in the publication process, you will be asked to download the form and return a signed copy via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please review the below information to ensure agreement with SPPP policies.
Section 1: Author’s Grant of Rights
In consideration of the Publisher’s agreeing to publish the Work in The School of Public Policy Publications, the Author hereby grants to the Publisher the following:
1.1 The irrevocable, royalty-free right to publish, reproduce, publicly display, publicly perform and distribute the Work in perpetuity throughout the world in all means of expression by any method or media now known or hereafter developed, including electronic format;
1.2 The irrevocable, royalty-free right to use the Author’s name and likeness in association with the Work in published form and in advertising and promotional materials related to the Work; and
1.3 The irrevocable, royalty-free right to license others to do any or all of the above.
Section 2: Prior Publication & Publication by Others
2.1 The Author agrees not to publish the Work, or authorize any third party to publish the Work, either in print or electronically, prior to publication of the Work by the Publisher.
2.2 The Author agrees not to publish the Work in any publication outlet which is substantially similar to The School of Public Policy Publications for a period of six (6) months after publication of the Work in The School of Public Policy Publications. Substantially similar is defined as a non-subscription, open-access publication outlet with a similar mandate/vision and intended audience.
2.3 Should the Author publish or distribute the Work elsewhere at any time or in any alternate format, the Author agrees to contact The School of Public Policy Publications to inform them of the subsequent publication.
2.4 Should the Author publish or distribute the Work elsewhere at any time or in any alternate format, the Author agrees to make reasonable efforts to ensure that any such additional publication cites the publication in The School of Public Policy Publications by author, title, and publisher, through a tagline, author bibliography, or similar means. A sample acknowledgement would be:
“Reprinted with permission from the author. Originally published in the The School of Public Policy Publications, http://www.policyschool.ca/publications/.”
Section 3: Editing and Formatting
The Author authorizes the Publisher to edit the Work and to make such modifications as are technically necessary or desirable to exercise the rights in Section 1 in differing media and formats. The Publisher will make no material modification to the content of the Work without the Author’s consent.
Section 4: Author’s Ownership of Copyright and Reservation of Rights
4.1 Nothing in this agreement constitutes a transfer of the copyright by the Author, and the copyright in the Work is subject to the rights granted by this agreement.
4.2 The Author retains the following rights, including but not limited to, the right:
4.2.1 To reproduce and distribute the Work, and to authorize others to reproduce and distribute the Work, in any format;
4.2.2 To post a version of the Work in an institutional repository or the Author’s personal or departmental web page so long as The School of Public Policy Publications is cited as the source of first publication of the Work (see sample acknowledgement above).
4.2.3 To include the Work, in whole or in part, in another work, subject to Section 2 above and provided that The School of Public Policy Publications is cited as the source of first publication of the Work (see sample acknowledgement above).
4.3 The Editors and Editorial Board of The School of Public Policy Publications requires authors to publish the Work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC 4.0). This license allows others to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the Work for noncommercial purposes, and ensures the Author is credited for the original creation. This onward licensing is subject to section 2.4 of this agreement, which further ensures that the original publisher is credited.
Section 5: Author’s Warranties and Undertakings
The Author warrants that:
5.1 The Author is the sole author of the Work, or if a joint author, the Author has identified within the Work the other authors, and holds the copyright, either solely or jointly, and has the power to convey the rights granted in this agreement.
5.2 The Work has not previously been published, in whole or in part, except as follows:
5.3 Any textual, graphic or multimedia material included in the Work that is the property or work of another is either explicitly identified by source and cited in the Work or is otherwise identified as follows:
5.4 To the best of the Author’s knowledge, the Work does not contain matter that is obscene, libelous, or defamatory; it does not violate another’s civil right, right of privacy, right of publicity, or other legal right; and it is otherwise not unlawful.
5.5 To the best of the Author’s knowledge, the Work does not infringe the copyright or other intellectual property or literary rights of another.
5.6 The Author will indemnify and hold Publisher harmless against loss, damages, expenses, awards, and judgments arising from breach of any such warranties.
Section 6: The Reuse of Third-Party Works
The Publisher requires that the Author determine, prior to publication, whether it is necessary to obtain permissions from any third party who holds rights with respect to any photographs, illustrations, drawings, text, or any other material (“third-party work”) to be published with or in connection with your Work. Copyright permission will not be necessary if the use is determined to be fair dealing, if the work is in the public domain, or if the rights-holder has granted a Creative Commons or other licence. If either the Author or Publisher determines for any reason that permission is required to include any thirdparty work, the Author will obtain written permission from the rightsholder.