The confusion of Will Hutton


We've Will Hutton telling us that we really need to be taxing corporations more. For they're paying less in tax on their profits than they used to and this is what ails our State. Sadly, what has really been shown is Will's confusion in reading GDP figures.

If companies in Britain paid, proportionally, as much tax as they did in the last year of Mrs Thatcher’s prime ministership, the country would be £30bn better off.

Well, no. Moving money from one account to another does not make "the country" better off. It might make the Treasury better off, this is true, at the expense of making investors in companies worse off, but this is not the same as the statement that it will make the country better off. For, as we might all have noticed, living as we do in a place where there are things outside the state, the State and the country are not the same thing. But then we get the more detailed confusion:

Nor is that where the bending of the tax system – and the state – to accommodate companies’ chosen behaviour stops. Over the same years there has been a monumental bidding down of wages as the share of company profits has risen by 6%, in terms of GDP, with wages falling by a commensurate amount.

This is a basic schoolboy error and one that's embarrassing for someone who was a Governor of the LSE to make. GDP is not made up of the wage share plus the profit share. there are more components than that: most notably the taxes paid upon consumption and the taxes paid upon employment. And a couple of us have been pointing out what has actually been happening over these years. The wage share has indeed been falling. But the profit share has not been notably rising. The difference explained by those two tax shares, on consumption and employment, rising. It's is not that the capitalists have been stealing the crusts from the workers' mouths, it is that government has been.

But we will admit that this produced a guffaw:

What is striking about the international system is the variety of tax regimes, wage and profit shares – and the lack of convergence, as the IFS’s exhaustive review of the tax system, led by Nobel Laureate Professor James Mirrlees, pointed out. There is plenty of scope for redesigning our tax system to make it fairer, increase its yield and refashion the bargain between companies and the state if we choose.

That's the Sir James Mirrlees of optimal taxation theory fame? Whose major contribution to taxation theory is that we should not be trying to tax corporations or capital returns, but instead should be taxing rents and consumption? And this is what is called in evidence to underpin the clai9m that corporations should be paying more tax?

It is to laugh, eh?