Why are companies so rich and states so poor?

The state is broke, and democratic government ineffective, because big business no longer pays tax.

The state is broke, and democratic government ineffective, because big business no longer pays tax

Get ready for some big numbers.

According to Bloomberg, citing a report by Moody’s, the credit rating agency, the total amount of cash currently sitting in the bank accounts of listed US non-financial companies is around US$1.6 trillion, a sum roughly equal to double the US Federal deficit expected next year.

If the same is true of the UK, and the consensus in the City of London is that it is, at least roughly, the amount of cash on call to British non-financial companies would be around £200 billion. That is enough to run the NHS for two years. Alternatively, it would keep the government in surplus for the next five years.

Let’s err on the side of modesty and assume we have over-calculated. Let’s say the real figure for the UK is closer to £100 billion. If that sum were to be taxed at the going corporate rate of 20 per cent, a rate significantly lower than that paid by a typical teacher or nurse, the government take would be £20 billion.

By contrast, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls hope to raise a paltry £1.2 billion from their dirty, messy mansion tax. You can already see the Daily Mail ferreting out spinster sisters who will face eviction from the family home where they have dedicated their lives to caring… etc, etc.

Why are companies so rich and states so poor? And is it not the poverty of states that is leading to disenchantment with democracy and the increasing attraction of political weasels like Russell Brand and Nigel Farage?

The answer to the first question is relatively simple. Globalisation has allowed big business to move production to where costs are lowest and marketing to where growth is highest. Competition for jobs has kept workers relatively docile, while the deflationary impact of global markets has justified keeping wages and salaries stagnant.

But the expansion and deepening of multi-lateral trade agreements through the 1980s and 1990s (EU Single Market, WTO, Nafta etc) was never accompanied by comparable reform of bilateral tax treaties. Ireland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, to name a few, are allowed to join the EU, the EEA, the WTO, but are not required, as a due for membership, to do anything to their extremely business-obsequious tax laws. The same Bloomberg article cited above points out that the entire cash pile of big American business is held offshore, in tax havens.

Added to this, monetary policy, of which quantitative easing has been the current era’s instrument of choice, has kept the cost of capital lower than at any time since the Black Death. So big business pays no tax, while its cost of capital is heavily subsidised by central banks whose liabilities, of course, ultimately lie with the state.

The profits of globalisation and low interest rates are hoarded in offshore cash piles because there is little point investing in economies that are not growing. Alternatively, our economies are not growing because excess capital is being hoarded instead of invested.

Both sides of the argument are true, but the lack of investment is not due to lack of need. The need is there, as we all know, in health and social care, housing, education, youth employment, infrastructure renewal, security. The problem is allocation, or misallocation. Capital is not being transferred from the private to the public sector because the normal transmission of corporate taxation has fouled up.

When a vote once every five years decides little more than the 2 – 3 per cent difference at the margin of the health service budget, we should hardly be surprised that democracy is seen as pale and pointless compared to the sweeping bravado of Brand, Farage, Marine Le Pen, the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, even of Islamic State.

If listed companies were made to pay proper taxes, governments would have the resource to make meaningful decisions, and political parties would have the opportunity to present real, even dramatic choices. Democracy would be restored, at least in part, on the simple principle: no representation without taxation.

Leo Schulz is a freelance journalist and author

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