En route to a tax conference in Malta earlier this month, circumstances led me to muse about the renewed race to the bottom of international corporate tax rates. Donald Trump had not yet surprised the world with his election win, so his promises of madly reduced US corporate tax rates were the stuff of fantasy. But lowly Hungary had just come up with the first single digit rate in the EU, leapfrogging on its way down the traditional cut price nations of Ireland and Cyprus. And since Britain’s decision to ditch the EU, its surrogate Prime Minister Theresa May and her Cabinet have been titillating the markets with talk of even lower rates, though this week’s Autumn Statement reiterated the, once promiscuous but now modest, 17% target for 2020.
All sounds wonderful? Well, here was the first lesson in Tax Policy 101 at 35,000 feet. A certain Italian international airline, which shall remain nameless, was offering the cheapest Business Class travel to my destination. This was not the first time I had flown with them, but triumph-of-hope-over-experience is my middle name.
As Milton Friedman famously said: ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch’,
but in the case of this airline, for the first hour and a half in the air, there was no such thing as a free glass of water. The single attendant assigned to Business Class clearly felt the need, inspired by his socialist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, to redistribute his time to the proletariat at the back, and offer free access to the Business Class toilet because – as he pointed out – he had 150 people on the flight needing facilities; Airbus (and the Italian airline) obviously hadn’t taken that fact into account when configuring the seat lay-out. The meal would not have disappointed a five year old kid with a five dollar budget at McDonalds.
But it wasn’t all bad. The plane did manage to stay in the air for the entire three and a half hour flight – no small feat when considering Italian aviation history, especially in the early 1940s.
At the end of the day, it is simple economics that if you cut the budget something has to give. In the case of the Italian airline, it was service that flew out of the window. In the case of countries recklessly hacking corporate tax rates without stopping to think, they are condemning their populations to austerity today, or austerity tomorrow.
Of course, what each government is trying to do is bring in more foreign investment, expand employment and, thus, the tax base. However, while there is considerable evidence that free trade, by forcing nations to concentrate on their areas of comparative advantage, potentially leads to an increase in the size of the overall pie, tax competition is, if anything, distortive to international trade leading to suboptimal results, at the same time delivering reduced public investment that may have been needed to expand the economy.
After years of careful planning following the 2008 financial crisis, we are now entering a period of knee-jerk decisions in international economics alongside knee-jerk decisions in international affairs.
At least it will not be boring.