How Apple Sidesteps Billions in Taxes Around the Globe: Some Personal Reflections
If someone asked you how much Apple paid on $34.2 Billion in profits, what would you guess? Especially if you listen regularly to the right-wing rhetoric about how tax burden is unsupportable, how jobs are being destroyed because of excessive taxes, and how companies are being made uncompetitive by their tax burden? How much?
$9 billion? $10 billion? Nah. It's $3.3 billion, or a tax rate of about 9.8%. The actual figure is likely even lower, since "Apple does not disclose what portion of those payments was in the United States, or what portion is assigned to previous or future years."
Apple, of course, is not the only one. This front page article in today's New York Times
singles out Apple as an example both because Apple is now about to become the most profitable company ever, and is one of the most aggressive in tax avoidance. But the article isn't unfair to Apple. It talks about a culture of tax avoidance throughout corporate America, and in particular, at high tech firms, which have the biggest opportunities for tax avoidance because digital goods and "intellectual property" can more easily be made to appear to belong to subsidiaries in low or no-tax countries.
Big companies have armies and lawyers who outfox tax collectors by taking advantage of a patchwork of conflicting tax regimes around the world. For example:
"Apple, for instance, was among the first tech companies to designate overseas salespeople in high-tax countries in a manner that allowed them to sell on behalf of low-tax subsidiaries on other continents, sidestepping income taxes, according to former executives. Apple was a pioneer of an accounting technique known as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean. Today, that tactic is used by hundreds of other corporations — some of which directly imitated Apple’s methods, say accountants at those companies."
There's an expanded explanation of the Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich later in the story. But this line gives one taste: "In 2004, Ireland, a nation of less than 5 million, was home to more than one-third of Apple’s worldwide revenues, according to company filings."
I highly recommend this story. It is truly eye-opening. I'm going to post a couple of the graphs from the story separately (Note to G+ - do allow embedded graphics and multiple links! With a storify-like interface, you could do this super-easily without making people need to know HTML.) The bar graph that shows Apple's growing profits versus their relatively static taxes is here: http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2012/04/29/technology/29appletax-hp-graphic.html?ref=business
Alas, it is a pale shadow of the version in the print edition, which is vertical rather than horizontal, and uses a scale that takes up 3/4 of the front page. Truly eye-opening.
shows that the problem is not limited to Apple. As corporate profits have soared, the amount paid in taxes across the board has remained fairly flat. Clearly, the tax collectors are falling further and further behind the experts at tax avoidance.But to my promised personal reflections
I can already imagine the comments of the libertarians and anti-tax advocates in the comments on this post. "Avoiding taxes is just keeping more of the hard-earned wealth you've created by being productive and successful."
But I'd like to suggest a thought experiment. Imagine that you and a large group of friends, or an extended family, decide to hold a reunion or big party that requires renting a space and some real expenses. You agree to share the expenses equally. Then one of you says, "I'm getting us a discount on the hotel from my friend, so I shouldn't have to pay my share." Another two or three say, "I'm helping with the catering, so I shouldn't have to pay." Another: "I'm willing to act as designated driver, so I shouldn't have to pay." Each time, you think, "Yeah, that's reasonable."
But before long, things get dicey. Three more people fail to send in their promised check for the deposit despite repeat nagging. The ten people who are left on the hook for the expenses say, "This is too much. We can't afford it." So you start by letting a couple of your friends, who you know are really hard up for money, off the hook. Oh sh*t, the problem just got worse for the remaining people, who now have to shoulder a bigger and bigger part of the cost (or put it on a credit card and hope that they will one day be able to pay it back.)
Somewhere along the line, you realize that you just can't afford the great party that you'd all had your hearts set on.
You have a choice: You can scale back. Or you can stop accepting all the special reasons why one friend or another shouldn't have to pay, share the costs as originally planned, and make it affordable by all working together.
Sometimes cutting back is the right choice.
But sometimes, working together, we can do things that are wonderful, that none of us could do alone.
Put it in the context of your family. Wouldn't those of you who had more resources support those who didn't? Wouldn't you shoulder more of the burden? You're well off. Your brother or cousin is not. They can't afford to make it to the family reunion, but you love them dearly. Would you help?
I can imagine the libertarians and anti-taxers again: "But that's your choice. The problem is that government has a monopoly on force, and makes us do this against our will."
Hold on: You all made an agreement in the beginning to hold this party. Then some of you decided you wanted to opt out of paying for it.
It's a bit more complicated than that, of course, because it was our ancestors who decided to hold the party, and agreed over time on how to split the costs, and a bunch of wasteful cousins ran up the tab. But we're still a family, we still care about each other, and we want to do right for each other. So we work it out, and try to be fair, and to the extent we can, generous.
That's how it is, folks. We can be a happy family, who look after each other and create joy and possibility through being together, or one that chooses to go our separate ways, and leaves a lot of happiness on the table.
P.S. I come from a large, close, and generous family. I grew up in a household where my father borrowed money to meet his charitable obligations. When my company nearly went under in 1985, my mother saved it with a loan of a large percentage of her liquid assets, with the only stipulation being that she'd ask for it back when I didn't need it any more, and someone else did. That became known in the family as a "mammy loan."
A few years later, that same money helped my brother to buy a house. As I became more successful, I paid it forward to other family members as well.
I look at families that are successful. They love and take care of each other, and are repaid in ways that make everyone happier.
I look at families that are unsuccessful. Everyone looks after number one, and they gradually drift apart.
I know which kind of family I want. And I want my country to work the same way.