First published in Global Tax Weekly, 12 January 2017.
“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Mark Twain.
This quote by Mark Twain, one of America’s greatest thinkers, encapsulates the global view of corporate tax in 2016. A set of commonly held views, often referred to as “common sense,” will shape the actions and choices made within a given community, even when those views are erroneous. But even if widely held views are erroneous, that doesn’t diminish the fact that they are widely held, and that makes them real and potentially problematic.
The taxation of multinational corporations has been the subject of much public discussion and debate in recent years, among experts, politicians, journalists and the general public. Some of that discussion has been well informed. Much has been based on limited understanding of the very real and deep issues involved. Too much has been based upon “common sense” things people know for sure that “just ain’t so.”
Whether right or wrong, this common sense view shapes decisions, including public policy decisions. This may be because politicians and makers of public policy share these views, or because decision makers ignore them at their peril and act on the back of a perceived mandate from the general consensus.
The result has been a growing belief that multinationals are not paying enough tax and should be punished, through assessments running into billions of dollars or euros (see, for example, the Apple state aid case in Europe). This has occurred notwithstanding the existence of previously agreed tax rulings or other arrangements with taxing authorities on which taxpayers are supposed to be able to rely.