Tax avoidance



A Senate investigation has revealed that between 2009 and 2012, Apple avoided paying taxes on $44 billion in profits that it earned offshore.

Where the corporation did pay taxes on its offshore earnings, it paid at a much reduced rate. Taking advantage of low corporate tax rates in Ireland, it made that country the base–at least for tax purposes–of some of its vast international operations. But, Ireland’s corporation-friendly 12% tax rate wasn’t low enough. So Apple used its leverage to arrange a special tax deal in Ireland and pays just 2% on the profits that it earns through Apple Sales International.

But that’s just proverbial the tip of Apple’s tax avoidance iceberg.

It turns out that Apple Operations International, which has accounted for more than 30% of the company’s total profits—an estimated $30 billion between 2009 and 2012–does not have a tax status in any nation. So, the billions of dollars in profits which that entity produces have somehow gone completely tax free.

As close as investigators have been able to determine, in 2011, a particularly profitable year, Apple paid about $10 million in taxes on net international earnings of about $22 billion.

Apple’s North American operations are based in the U.S. and subject to U.S. tax laws. In a prelude to testimony before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Apple claimed that in 2012 it paid $6 billion in U.S. taxes. In actuality, however, it paid $2.4 billion in taxes. The other $3.6 billion is “deferred taxation,” money that it will pay on revenues earned outside the U.S. by its North American operations if it chooses to bring those monies back into the country. If it does not choose to do so, the taxes do not need to be paid, ever.

So, in 2012, when the corporation did not have enough revenue on hand in its North American operations to cover the generous dividends owed to shareholders and to complete a strategic stock buy-back, it chose to sell $17 billion in bonds, rather than to draw on the estimated $100 billion in cash reserves that it has overseas.

What, then, do we take away from all of these statistics:

(1) Although small businesses in the U.S. may very well be caught in a tax vise, anyone who argues that American corporations are over-taxed is uninformed at best and deliberately duplicitous at worst. The nominal tax rates imposed on corporations are not anywhere close to the actual taxes that they pay. (Another often-cited example has been General Electric, which pays such low actual taxes that, when it received subsidies for investing in “green” energy technologies, the federal government owed it a substantial tax refund.)

(2) A 2010 study indicated that the top 1% of Americans in terms of income owned 35% of all stock, and the next 9% owned another 45.8%. That means that just 19.2% of stock is owned by the other 90% of Americans. So Apple’s profits are benefitting a very small percentage of Americans, and the taxes that it and other corporations are avoiding are being paid directly or indirectly by that other 90% of Americans.

By indirect taxation, I mean that when public services are cut to reduce almost non-existent corporate tax burdens, “average” taxpayers have to make up for those reductions out of their own pockets. Total revenue requirements very seldom go down at any level. So, sometimes it is a matter of revenue requirements being shifted from the federal to the state level or from the state to the local level. In other instances, individuals have to make up the difference out of pocket. For instance, each time that I receive a bill for water and garbage pick-up, there is a box in which I can indicate a contribution to support the maintenance of our city parks.

There has been a direct analogy in higher education. As state governments have reduced their subsidies to public colleges and universities, the out-of-pocket costs for students and the amount of debt carried by those students into their later lives has risen dramatically.

Indeed, a parallel consideration, which is seldom calculated, involves the amount of indirect salary reduction that American workers have absorbed because of the great reduction in the benefits now paid by most American corporations. Pensions, health insurance, dental insurance, and disability insurance are being paid out of pocket by an ever-increasing percentage of American workers, if they can afford those “benefits” at all.

(3) The argument frequently made by corporations such as Apple is that their exploitation of cheap foreign labor is necessitated by American consumers’ demand for inexpensive goods. But what has gone largely unsaid is that labor costs are such a small factor in corporate costs and equal such a small percentage of corporate profits that even a substantial increase in labor costs would not dramatically or proportionately reduce profits.

Another analogy is available in our increasingly corporatized universities–in the small percentage of university revenues that is typically allocated to faculty salaries in benefits. Most students, most parents, most legislators—and most faculty—might be surprised to know that faculty salaries and benefits typically account for between 20% and 25% of university budgets, including everyone from chaired professors to adjunct faculty. So the common belief that tuition is rising dramatically because of ever more exorbitant faculty salaries and benefits, and especially because of the inflated salaries and benefits paid to over-privileged tenured faculty, is a talking point that is very difficult to substantiate. At the average university, tenured faculty are well-paid only in comparison to underpaid non-tenure-eligible but full-time instructors and lecturers and to terribly exploited adjunct faculty—and not in comparison to administrators.

To return the focus to corporations, although putting the squeeze on workers’ wages and benefits will certainly increase profit margins, it is not a necessity to be profitable. Corporations have made a choice to value stockholders’ dividends over workers’ wages, benefits, and working conditions, and it is no accident that the unprecedented escalation in the compensation of those in upper-management has been tied directly to stock performance.

Thus, we have what Harold Meyerson has recently termed an “upside-down economy,” in which stock prices and corporate compensation are soaring well beyond historic benchmarks, but sales are falling in conjunction with average salaries as an increasing percentage of the workforce is being hired on an underpaid, contingent basis.

Again, an analogy is available in our universities, in which a president may receive $500,000 in annual compensation, which might be five to seven times what the average tenured faculty member receives, but might be 200 to 250 times what the average adjunct faculty member makes per course.

(4) It is not a coincidence that those political figures most determined to focus on the fact that 47% of Americans pay no federal income tax, even though they may pay 25% of their limited incomes in other taxes, are the very politicians who are most determined to focus on the oppressiveness of the nominal corporate tax rate, even though very few corporations pay anything close to that rate.

Given that these same political figures have been the most persistent proponents of “tax reform,” one must realize that as skewed as the present tax system is, any “reform” of that system is very likely to make it only more skewed.

When he died, Steve Jobs was widely eulogized as one of the most important figures of the “American century.” But “important” is not the same as “admirable.” As much as one might appreciate the impact of Apple products on our daily lives, it is not hard to argue that those innovations have come at a considerable—and, at this point, perhaps largely incalculable—cost.