Corporation tax vs. sales tax

I was on the Today programme this morning, at the ungodly hour of 6.15am, making the case for scrapping corporation tax and replacing it with a sales tax. This has come onto the agenda because Lord Lawson, chancellor under Margaret Thatcher, and great shifter of tax from incomes to consumption, suggested the idea. I also made a similar argument in City A.M. last week.

Why might we want to scrap corporation tax? Corporations are legal fictions; the burden of the taxes they pay must come out of the pockets of their stakeholders. In fact, it comes out of their employees' wages and their shareholders' returns. In itself this is not a huge problem, but we have a huge weight of economics research telling us that we must not tax capital.

Why might we want to switch to a sales tax instead? Well, unsurprisingly given where I work, I'd probably prefer no tax hikes at all. But, presuming we have to raise revenue somewhere, then the goal is to minimise the distortions in the system. Taxing corporate profits discourages profits—the most reliable guide a firm is doing its joband discourages corporatesthe backbone of modern capitalism.

Sales taxes shift the burden away from successful, desirable economic activity and towards less successful or unsuccessful firms. And note that if firms have a future, investors will plough more and more money into them despite making tiny profits or even losses. This does not change that: start-ups can still spend years making losses before they make it big.

They also go some way to resolving public discord over the corporate tax burden. Since it seems impossible to get over the point that it's pension funds and Google staff who lose out if Google is squeezed (Google might be a bad example because it seems that in this case it's paying the amount required by both the letter and the spirit of the law), maybe this more transparent levy would satisfy popular demands.

Certainly taxing firms on their profit but based on their sales in a territory (rather than where they create value, as in the current system) would create horrendous disincentives—driving many firm subsidiaries out of the UK.

The main objection is the same objection as people give to VAT: sometimes it's unclear whether a sale is made in the UK or not; smaller firms find it costly to keep up with. These are legitimate but dwarfed by the costs of distorting investment under the current system.

The real problem is if a 'sales tax' becomes a revenue tax, and falls on intermediate transactions as well as final sales—this would discourage any subcontracting and push firms to become giant vertically-integrated behemoths. But I am optimistic: with a bit of pushing, sometimes reforming civil servants and politicians will do the right thing.