The Paradise Papers should lead us towards a new global tax system

Last week, I published an op-ed in Danish newspaper Politiken with my colleague Saila Stausholm. I reproduce it below, liberally translated, for those interested. Given the op-ed format, it naturally has certain limitations and a certain style that differs from my usual writings on this blog – so take that into account. Here we go:

The Paradise Papers should lead us towards a new global tax system

Last Sunday, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) lifted the dam that had been holding back a new giant offshore leak, the Paradise Papers.

While the stories of tax haven usage do not necessarily reveal any illegal activity, the reactions tell us that citizens and politicians are outraged by the implications in the leaks of leaders and elites in the world’s richest countries.

Exactly because much of this activity is legal, the leak highlights the massive chasm between what ordinary people see as reasonable, and what the global elite can do within the limits of the law.

The Paradise Papers thus clearly showcase the structural problems of a nationally anchored tax system that works globally for mobile capital.

It is outdated, and there is a need for not just outrage and political attention, but also new, concrete ideas and the courage to change the system radically.

Small “quick fixes” here and there are not enough. On the contrary, we need to change the tax system fundamentally in order for it to match the ongoing reconfiguration of the global economy.

As illustrated by the tax haven leaks of the past few years, the opportunities to use tax havens and the offshore world are a key symptom of a tax system where regulation has not kept pace with globalisation.

Before the Paradise Papers, we had the Panama Papers, which created outrage in 2016, implicating the Icelandic Prime Minister, the Saudi Arabian king, the Pakistani Prime Minister, football world star Lionel Messi, and actor Jackie Chan.

In Denmark, too, the Panama Papers had consequences: The Danish tax administration is continuing its investigations into the affairs of at least 500 Danes.

Before the Panama Papers, we had the LuxLeaks, which revealed that PwC had helped a string of global corporates attain hugely favourable tax terms in Luxembourg. This had happened while current European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was Prime Minister in the Grand Duchy.

LuxLeaks also fostered significant political reactions, and became the starting point for Margrethe Vestager’s high-profile state aid cases against Luxembourg involving Amazon, Fiat, and McDonald’s.

And again before LuxLeaks, we had the Offshore Leaks in 2013. In addition, we have had the SwissLeaks and the Bahamas Leaks. These many leaks must be viewed in light of the increasing focus on tax havens and the issues created by the international tax system for both rich and poor countries.

Since the global financial crisis broke out in 2007-08, nation-states have increasingly identified the strengthening of national and international tax systems as a central part of the solution to the economic challenges we face today: debt crisis, public budgets under pressure, low growth and growing inequality.

As a consequence, both national governments and the international community has ramped up political initiatives against tax havens, against aggressive tax planning, against money laundering, and against tax evasion.

Today, we have much more transparency and better international exchange of tax information; we have closed some of the worst loopholes; and we have changed what is acceptable in terms of bank secrecy, shell companies, etc.

But the political reforms from the past decade have not really taken on the fundamental causes of the problems we are seeing today in tax havens and in the international tax system.

All the key components of the international tax system, established in the early 20th century, have not changed substantially.

Countries can still undermine each other by commercialising their sovereignty and offer favourable terms to foreign capital and thus reduce the economic and democratic capacity of their neighbours. And despite initiatives in the EU and the OECD, international cooperation is still relatively limited and, to a large extent, controlled by a small core of actors from the world’s richest nations.

Global corporations are still, essentially, taxed like they were 100 years ago, when they were small regional networks primarily trading physical goods.

This means that global capital – large corporations and rich individuals – are still able to structure tax liabilities with little friction across borders, while governments are largely bound by geographical and territorial borders.

If we want to address the fundamental challenges facing the international tax system today, we need a complete overhaul of the system. We need global innovation. Innovation is needed because old solutions will not do. And global scope is needed because solutions need to encompass all relevant countries and interests, if we harbour any ambition of finding sustainable and lasting answers.

First of all, we need innovation in terms of more and better inclusion of various interests in political decision-making processes. This is particularly relevant at the international level, where the group of decision-makers involved has historically been very narrow.

Our research has shown that a small group of actors play a disproportionate role in international tax policy-making. And that a core group of technical experts contribute to setting a course for regulatory initiatives that widely differs from the perceptions and goals of the general public and of politicians.

International tax policy is very important, and should have broad participation in all phases from the public, from civil society, from researchers, from interest organisations, and from politicians from all sides. This is not the case today. This would improve the quality of the democratic system and the political decision-making.

One model for such an expansion of participation is a World Tax Organisation. Today, taxation is just about the only major global political issue area where we do not have a global organisation with active participation from across the globe, where global challenges can be discussed, and common guidelines can be laid out.

We have a World Trade Organisation, a World Bank, a World Health Organisation, and so forth. But we do not have a World Tax Organisation.

This is not to say that these organisations are flawless, nor that a new organisation will solve all of our problems on its own. It is just one suggestion and just one part of the solution. What such an organisation does provide is a common global forum, where a broad range of issues can be raised and addressed, which simply does not exist in the area of taxation.

The “global” political discussions we have today largely take place in the OECD, the G20 and the EU; they play a key role in setting the agenda.

This makes it difficult for other countries and other stakeholders to join and influence discussions, despite the fact that many of the issues caused by the current international tax system hit emerging and developing countries disproportionately hard.

Without assuming the full design of a World Tax Organisation, we can at least imagine that it would function as a global forum that could take up key questions about international tax policy and tax havens, start political reform discussions, carry out global consultations, set out global guidelines, etc.

A more expansive idea of such an organisation could, like the World Trade Organisation, be entrusted with the power to assess and enforce whether any one country’s tax system would live up to globally agreed minimum standards, in order to ensure that it did not harm other countries with its policies or allow harmful discrimination of certain persons or companies.

In addition to creating a better forum for the negotiation of common ground rules, we also need to rethink how we tax cross-border activities in the global economy of today.

Today, global corporations and rich individuals have particularly large scope to lower their tax bills by manipulating mobile income across borders because our tax systems are still based around outdated ideas of how and where value is created in a global economy.

For instance, a substantial part of global corporate assets today are intellectual property: patents, copyrights, etc. In short: ideas.

In contrast to traditional assets such as factories, ideas and mobile and malleable. Where and when does an idea originate, and how does it create value?

Despite hundreds of pages of guidelines and regulation, multinational companies retain a great deal of flexibility in answering these questions and thus determining the location and size of their taxable incomes.

Large and complex global ownership networks equally allow corporations to move ideas, services and profit relatively friction-less across borders.

This is why taxation of corporations, and individuals, who effectively operate on a global scale, should also work effectively globally.

In the area of corporate taxation, one proposal in this vein is unitary taxation, where global corporations’ taxable income is consolidated at the global level, before it is distributed to each country of operation based on a predetermined formula.

In this way, it becomes far less important where corporations locate their profits, and thus harder to avoid tax liabilities as in today’s system.

In the area of personal taxation, a truly global tax regime might utilise multilateral tax assessments and audits for globally mobile individuals.

Again, these proposals are not silver bullet panaceas that will solve everything in a second. But they may be part of the solution, and they serve as important pointers towards a positive future for tax systems.

In order for these innovations to realistically happen, we also need a complete rethinking of attitudes to national sovereignty.

A key cause of today’s relatively limited international cooperation in tax matters, and of continued resistance towards a World Tax Organisation, is that governments across the world are terrified to surrender absolutely sovereignty over their tax systems.

However, as German philosopher Peter Dietsch has illustrated, international tax cooperation is not about surrendering sovereignty, it is about strengthening it.

Today, we have de facto lost sovereignty when tax havens induce limitations on our economic and political latitude. And yet we refuse to challenge their rights to do so.

Paradoxically, this insistence on the absolute sovereignty of others’ in tax matters thus weakens our own sovereignty.

If we are to achieve the needed global innovation in tax matters, we need to acknowledge that global cooperation provides a unique opportunity to regain lost sovereignty.

Another acknowledgement that is required for global tax innovation is that international tax politics is not a zero-sum game.

Today, many governments resist good ideas for change because they fear an absolute reduction in national tax revenue.

The Danish government, for instance, has expressed skepticism about a common European corporate tax system, proposed by the European Commission, which has the purpose of eliminating many of the most important current channels of tax avoidance used by large corporations in Europe. This skepticism is caused by a fear that Danish tax revenue would suffer due to our small market size.

There are many good reasons to be skeptical of the European Commission’s proposal, but tax revenue fears must be understood in the context of the long list of indirect benefits to the Danish public coffers, which are likely to outweigh any direct, absolute revenue losses. These include administrative cost savings and reduction in tax avoidance.

There are countless examples of hesitation around new political ideas because of this zero-sum mentality in tax matters.

But it is crucial that we view global innovation in tax policy as a unique opportunity to ensure a sustainable international tax system for the future.

Global tax innovation can be a critical way to future-proof our tax systems and thus our public finances. With a typical Treasury expression, the dynamic effects of global tax innovation are potentially enormous.

A World Tax Organisation and a global tax system will not solve all of our problems on their own, but they are a important steps in the right direction – and it is unlikely that we can effectively address our current challenges without effective organisational support and global policies.

However, global fora and global politics of this kind today are also plagued by large inequalities in resources, competencies and capacity between national representations. This will not be solved by establishing a new global organisation or new global policies.

This is why we also need to acknowledge the broader global political inequalities that lead to lack of cooperation, both in terms of a lack of will and in terms of lack of capacity.

For instance, a key reason that many small island states have historically pursued “tax haven strategies” is that they simply have not identified or been able to execute viable alternative strategies for economic development, and that they have been encouraged to do so, for instance by successive British governments.

Another challenge lies in the dominance that large Western states exercise in global politics. They tailor global tax rules to their advantage, while small tax havens and developing countries have almost no influence on international standards and regulation.

This gives substantial incentives to defect and to counteract global cooperation.

The USA, for instance, has played a key role in reducing bank secrecy in Switzerland, but in parallel it has strengthened its own secrecy industry at home, effecting what political scientists Lukas Hakelberg and Max Schaub have called “redistributive hypocrisy”.

We need to recognise and address these types of global political inequalities if the fight for global tax innovation is to succeed.

And there are good reasons for trying to do just that. The Paradise Papers and the increasing public attention to the challenges of tax havens and the international tax system underline the necessity of altering the current political course.

Small “quick fixes” of an outdated international tax system will not do.

We are hoping that the continuing stream of offshore leaks will not just lead to outrage but also to fundamental disruption of our whole approach to questions of global political inequality, globalisation, and, specifically, global taxation.

There is a need for broader and better participation in global political discussions of tax havens and tax systems. A World Tax Organisation would be a great place to start.

And there is a need to move towards tax systems that are truly anchored at the global level in order to deal with global economic activity.

There is also a need to rethink our approach to national sovereignty and to depart from the zero-sum mentality.

And finally, we need to address the global political inequalities that pose such a significant barrier to progress in the fight against tax havens.

If we can begin to move in this direction, just a bit, the future suddenly looks much brighter for the international tax system, for public finances, and for the modern global economy.

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