Tracking tax avoidance
” U.S. Lawmakers Slam Caterpillar Over Tax Avoidance”. That headline last month in one of our drab but professional trade mags brought a sardonic smile to my face as I imagined a black-windowed Hummer careering around Capitol Hill jam-packed with Senators. At the vehicle’s wheel was Carl Levin who suddenly screamed “Ya-hoo” ,or whatever 80-year-old Americans from Michigan scream when they are excited, as he pushed his foot to the floor so as not to miss the multipede innocently sauntering across Pennsylvania Avenue in search of a tax-free leaf.
Of course, if they had tried that schtick with the Caterpillar the lawmakers had in mind, what was left of the Hummer would have been humming sweet melodies while the occupants queued at St Peter’s Pearly Gates.
The April 1 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations smacked of deja vu-vu-vu. Having belatedly discovered that half the American Economy has taken up skiing in Switzerland or boozing in Ireland, rather than dealing with the root of the problem, the Senate appears to be picking the multinationals off one by one to ‘out ‘ them – this time, Caterpillar. The heavy machinery group’s international tax planning looks pretty standard fare for US companies in the last twenty years (Switzerland, IP, Transfer Pricing – you can join the dots yourselves) and, although nobody would suggest comparison, it is interesting to note that that very committee, in a former guise, was chaired in the early fifties by one Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
That committee has, however, come a long way since the Witch-hunts and this was no blanket kick in the pants.
Regular readers will recall that, around 18 months ago, the British Parliament held an auto-de-fe for Starbucks, Amazon and Google in which I do not recall hearing a single word of dissention as Margaret Hodge fanned the flames.
What interested me was how the members of the committee quoted in the article showed once again just how divided American politicians are on you-name-it-they’ll-argue-it.
Carl Levin (Democrat) implied that this sort of thing had to stop, John McCain (Republican – Sarah Palin’s side-kick) said that it was the law that needed changing, while Rand Paul (Tea) apologized for dragging the company’s representatives there in the first place.
On the other hand, at least nobody came out with the claim that Caterpillar is immoral, which has become the mantra of every self-respecting European legislature, even the French one.
I found myself sympathising with all three senators – American companies paying minimal taxes has to stop, the law needs a radical overhaul and why drag busy people to Washington when they are only doing their job of maximizing profits for their shareholders?
Maybe there is hope for the American political system after all.