Google's tax bill is nothing to celebrate


Google is to pay the UK £130m in back taxes. This has been hailed as a great victory against international corporations, which make profits in the UK but 'do not pay their fair share' of taxes'. Many others, like Amazon and Facebook, have also been cited as delinquents. A great victory for the UK Treasury? A boon for UK taxpayers? Hardly: by my calculations, £130m will keep the UK government going for just 91 minutes. If governments spent (and overspent) a lot less, individuals and firms might be more willing to pay tax to fund them.

The fact is that economic reality has changed (as it necessarily does) and companies are no longer as rooted to the land, in their factories and plant, as they were. Many, particularly in IT and services, can locate just about anywhere on the planet that they choose. And of course a number of enterprising countries are delighted to host them.

Moreover, with increasing volumes of trade done internationally over the internet, supplies sourced from many different countries, and semi-manufactures created in yet others, it is by no means clear where such companies' profits are actually made. A government might claim it is theirs, but they will be competing with others who think differently. If we are going to tax international corporations, we need to find a better way of doing it.

In any case, the tax that is supposedly paid by corporations is in fact paid by people. Studies show that three-fifths of the impact of corporation tax falls on the workers, reducing their wages. Of the remainder, some falls on shareholders by way of reduced dividends, making it harder for enterprising firms to attract new capital and create more jobs. Some is borne by customers in the form of higher prices.

Remember also the enormous benefits that firms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon bring to ordinary people. They have become successful international companies precisely because they offer people goods and services that they pay for quite willingly. In other words, they add value to our lives. Indeed, these companies add a lot of value to our lives. It would be well worth having them operating in one's country even if they paid the government no tax at all. Worth it solely for the benefit they bring to the public.

If only one could say that governments were equally valuable....