The authors’ efforts to obtain and examine data to assess underlying assumptions central to the tax literature could not be more timely or valuable, given recent critiques of formalism and calls for data analysis and experimentation. The authors’ multi-level approach is well thought-out and comprehensive. However, their conclusion about the future of boycotts may be premature.
First, the authors’ consumer survey may not be fully representative. The survey included about 500 respondents that were representative of U.S. consumers on five dimensions: gender, age, household income, education level and political affiliation. A larger group of subjects would, of course, be beneficial, but the geography of the respondents may also be relevant. If the survey participants were local to the universities where the authors work and teach, Iowa, North Carolina, and Utah, they may not be representative of the broader consumer population, particularly, in New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the West Coast states, where much U.S. consumer activism begins and gains momentum.
Second, the authors asked survey participants to rank the relative importance of factors that might influence a purchase decision. The fact that a corporation “Uses aggressive tax strategies to avoid paying their ‘fair share’ of taxes” ranked below “Financial statement fraud,” “Paying bribes in another country,” “Using discriminatory hiring and promotion practices,” “Harming the environment,” and above “Paying low wages” and “Its products are not made in the USA.” All of the higher-ranking factors are illegal; tax avoidance and the lower-ranking factors are not. It is unsurprising that consumers would be more likely to shun an illegal enterprise.
Third, the illegal / legal distinction is relevant in view of the boycotts’ broader context. Boycotts are one of many tactics that organizations use to educate and mobilize citizens to address government lapses and regulatory gaps. Kenneth Abbott (Arizona State) and Duncan Snidal (Oxford) describe the five stages of regulatory activity as (1) agenda-setting, (2) negotiation of standards, (3) implementation, (4) monitoring, and (5) enforcement. At each stage of public governance, the process may break down. Organizations sparking social movements are not using boycotts solely as a private mechanism to enforce public norms. Instead, they intervene at the agenda-setting stage, naming and shaming corporate actors and using boycotts as a performative signaling device, to demand regulatory change in the face of legal ossification and legislative quagmire.
In the wake of the Great Recession and the imposition of broad austerity measures, organizations such as War on Want and UK Uncut initiated name and shame campaigns, calling for boycotts of tax-avoiding multinationals. In response, Starbucks made additional voluntary tax payments of $16.8 million in 2013 and 2014. While several Members of Parliament responded to the campaign with calls to change the tax laws to reduce avoidance, others introduced legislation to expand such opportunities. The most important effects of the calls for boycotts were not widespread corporate self-regulation through voluntary remittances to the treasury or more stringent tax legislation locally, but the OECD project on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting, which reaches the problem at its source.
Many common governance problems are acute in the international context: absence of any overall governing authority, lack of resources, obstacles to coordinating and collaborating across jurisdictional boundaries, race-to-the-bottom dynamics, and diversion of the regulatory process by self-interested actors. Because any multinational corporation facing higher taxes in one jurisdiction may shift their income to another more tax-friendly jurisdiction, efforts to combat tax avoidance must be made through collective action at the state and international level.
Similar “leakage” problems and race-to-the-bottom dynamics plague efforts to preserve environmental resources and regulate labor standards at the international level. Numerous nongovernmental organizations have spearheaded international boycott campaigns to address child labor, human trafficking, environmental degradation and climate change, and some of these campaigns have begun to have an effect, though they have likely had little direct effect on corporate earnings. While the Tax Justice Network and the Global Alliance for Tax Justice may not have made significant inroads among U.S. consumers and issued demands for boycotts, the Biden Administration’s tax team and Congressional leaders are cognizant of their concerns. As researchers have begun to connect tax avoidance to other social harms, such as the slowed response to the pandemic and environmental resource degradation, which are more salient to the public, the demands for tax fairness have grown.
Finally, boycotts are one tool in an array of private regulatory mechanisms that NGOs may employ to raise awareness and call for legislative action. NGOs have developed many private governance mechanisms to address regulatory gaps, including corporate social responsibility, the rise of socially responsible investing (SRI) and environmental sustainability and corporate governance (ESG) reporting, certification and labeling systems, and environmental and social auditing structures (which have been built from existing tax and accounting audit infrastructure). The authors are likely correct that boycotts are not a real threat to consumer or investor activity in the U.S. Tax transparency is minimal; tax data is available only from the securities filings of publicly traded companies. Corporations with no consumer products are not vulnerable to product boycotts. Some products are not readily boycotted. Recent tax campaigns against the nation’s largest investor operated utilities did not call for boycotts; no one is going to cut themselves off from gas and electricity in protest against their utilities’ failure to pay taxes. Nevertheless, with or without boycotts, the notice that such campaigns draw to corporate tax avoidance may result in legislative change. Even the pro-business Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 curtailed the simultaneous tax benefits that investors in public utilities enjoyed from bonus depreciation, interest deductions, and restrictions on passing these benefits through to consumers.
Tax Boycotts is an excellent effort to test long-held assumptions. I look forward to reading any of the authors’ future research in the areas of tax and private governance.