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Taxes slip through the Net


A FAMOUS cartoon had two dogs sitting in front of a computer. "On the Internet," ran the caption, "nobody knows you're a dog." Such anonymity poses problems for taxmen. The Internet eliminates not just national borders but also the identity of firms and individuals doing business. As a result, the Net will open up opportunities both to exploit tax differences and - which makes it even more of a headache than globalization - to dodge taxes altogether. Tax nets are already torn, so globalization and new technology are making worse a problem that already exists. Even in America, where tax evasion is thought to be smaller than in Europe, a guessed-at 15% of total personal taxable income is concealed from the taxman

A cynic might argue that there is little evidence that governments are finding it hard to raise revenue. Total tax revenue oecd countries climbed to a record 38% of GDP in 1996, up from 34% of gdp in 1980. And there is no clear evidence that high-tax countries have seen smaller increase in their tax burdens in recent years.

It is important to remember that globalization has begun to develop fully only in the past decade; the Internet is younger still. Their impact on taxes is unlikely to be measurable yet. And even if they eat away just 10% of revenues one day, that would still have a huge impact in a high-tax country. France, for example, collects 50% of GDP in taxes. If it loses 10% of that amount - 5% of gdp - the budget deficit would more than double. Or, to keep the deficit stable, public spending on health would have to be more than halved. Imagine what French voters would make of that.

To understand the impact of globalization on taxes, though, you do not have to use your imagination. You can see it in the way governments have been forces to change the structure of taxation.

In theory, on-line retailers are subject to the same tax laws as other businesses. But how these apply to electronic commerce is a grey area. Because the Internet has no single location, it is hard to say which state has tax jurisdiction over it.

Suppose a customer in California downloads software bought from a firm in Seattle. The company transmits it using the Internet from a computer in Texas. Which state should tax the profit? Or say a German consumer buys a software package from a local subsidiary of an American firm. If he goes into a shop, the profit is taxed in Germany. But if he downloads the software over the Internet, lower, American rates apply.

As yet, electronic commerce is modest among consumers. World on-line consumer sales are forecast to reach only $7 billion by 2000. That is just 0.1% of American consumer spending. In 30 years' time, however, 30% of consumer activity could be taking place on-line, says John Neilson of Microsoft's interactive services division. If so, and if the juridical problems remain unsolved, then the Net would make a big dent in sales taxes.

All this gives rise to slightly different concerns in America and Europe. Under a quirk of American law, mail-order firms are usually exempt from state sales taxes if the buyer is in a different state. If a New Yorker buys a case of wine from a Californian firm, then no tax is payable. The Internet will boost such business.

Europe's problem is how to charge vat on electronic commerce. In the Netherlands, for instance, many people buy cds over the Internet from small foreign firms. Since the firms do not charge vat, the cds are cheaper. Last December, the Dutch government clamped down on this wheeze by ordering the post office to open all suspicious packages. But customs officers can hardly start opening ail the post entering a country as sales over the Net expand.

Goods delivered by mail pose problems enough. Policing products downloaded electronically - music and videos - will be even trickier. Small companies cannot be expected to collect vat from customers and then remit the revenues to all the relevant tax authorities in every country in the world. And if as in Canada, customers are supposed to make their own assessment of vat payable с anything purchased over the Internet, there will be big leaks.

Two particular features of producing delivered over telecommunication works will make it hard for the taxman catch tax dodgers. The first is that the original cost of such products is close to zero.

It requires no additional inputs to provide an extra viewer with satellite television. This removes the standard zего check on a firm's tax return by company purchases of inputs with claimed one. If a firm sells software on floppy disks then the number of blank disks purchased can be used to verify sales. But the software is sold electronically, there no corroborating evidence.

The Internet may also reduce the rate of traditional intermediaries, such bankers and brokers, who report transitions to tax authorities. These intermediaries help tax inspectors compare income declared by the individual with that paid out by banks. By cutting out middleman, the Internet removes the source of cross-checking.

Lastly, electronic money is likely make tax evasion easier. At present, tax inspectors can check reported income spending against bank accounts or credit card statements. But electronic cash, paper cash, can be anonymous, untraceable - and a good deal more convenient for money launderers than lugging a case stuffed with notes around the world.

The Second World War, America's federal corporation tax yielded one-third of total federal tax revenues, more than personal income tax. Now, corporation tax accounts for only 12% of the total and barely a quarter as much as personal tax. In the European Union the average rate of tax on in­come from capital and self-employed labour fell from almost 50% in 1981 to 35% in 1994; the average tax rate on wages rose from 35% to 41%. Everywhere there has been a shift from taxing capital towards taxing less mobile factors of production, such as workers. Personal income taxes are by far the most important source of government revenue in all rich economies.

Will international competition cause tax regimes to change further and converge? The answer will depend on the sort of tax. For corporate taxes, the answer is likely to be yes. Convergence is already happening here. There are also limits on governments' freedom to set widely-different consumption taxes. The large numbers of Britons popping over to France to buy beer and spirits have forced the British government to cap the excise duty on booze, because of the loss of tax revenue. Attempts in Canada to raise sharply the tax on cigarettes to discourage smoking had to be reversed in 1994 because of massive smuggling across the United States border.

But such "sin taxes" tend to be the exception. By and large, the scope for intereased cross-bonder shopping via, say, mail-order over the Internet is mainly limited to low volume, high-value products. Higher rates on luxury goods, such as cameras and watches, may have to be abandoned. In contrast, the opportunities for tax arbitrage on low-value, high-volume products, such as food, are limited. For these taxes, the answer to the question "Will taxes converge?" is likely to be no. Differences will remain between countries' general sales taxes, which now range from around 5% in the United States and Japan to 25% in Sweden.

The answer may also be no for standard rates of income tax. There are still big social and economic obstacles to the movement of individuals across borders, so significant income-tax differentials are likely to persist. Language, culture, visas and qualifications prevent over-taxed Europeans flooding into America, for instance.

In short, economic integration does not necessarily make tax rates uniform. But it does tend to encourage some of them to converge. America illustrates the point. Though capital and labour are highly mobile, tax differences are still tolerated.

State sales taxes vary from zero in Alaska to 7% in Mississippi; personal income-tax rates from zero in Alaska to 12% in Massachusetts; corporate tax rates from zero in Texas to 12% in Pennsylvania. However, these differences are smaller than tax differences between countries. The top personal income-tax rate ranges from 33% in New Zealand to 65% in Japan. That suggests that competition in America has encouraged some convergence of tax rates there. Indeed, the differences in effective tax rates between American states are smaller than the crude figures suggest because state income tax is deductible from the federal income-tax bill.


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