Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Tax Haven Discussion

That the current conversation about tax havens is happening at all is remarkable. It has somehow become the topic of the moment in both Washington and London, and there is a sense that something might actually be done.

On the other hand, the fact that Apple is testifying before Congress about tax havens suggests that nothing will happen very quickly. Apple does not make a strong case for tax havens, as it has actual manufacturing and other substantial operations in the countries where its cash, it says, is stuck. One of the many U.S. corporations nominally headquartered in the Cayman Islands or a similar tax-friendly travel destination would be able to say more. Still, Apple’s situation serves to illustrate the problem, and it is hard to find anyone who understands Apple’s accounts and does not find them frustrating.

This level of discussion is remarkable when you recall that just last year we had a U.S. presidential candidate whose record of “business leadership” consisted mainly of employing tax havens. This was a subject that advocacy groups mentioned but not one that serious news commentators or elected officials wanted to touch — then. But that shows you how far political culture has shifted in less than a year.

It is the disparity between policies of different countries that give multinational corporations their special leverage that no other entities in the current world enjoy. If we have reached the point where those disparities can actually be reduced, multinational corporations might not enjoy their preeminent status in the world for too much longer.