Putting Apple in Its Place

September 1st, 2016 by Phil Mattera

bad-appleApple’s indignant response to the European Commission tax ruling has nothing to do with an inability to pay. The company’s cash pile of more than $200 billion could cover the assessment several times over. Instead, it’s something more akin to the attitude attributed to the late New York hotelier Leona Helmsley: only the little people pay taxes.

Large corporations like Apple think that what they do is so important that they should be able to skirt their fair share of taxes. Some of their dodging is covert and some is done brazenly out in the open; some is done against the wishes of tax collectors and some is done with their full cooperation.

The covert portion of Apple’s tax avoidance started to come to light in 2012, when the New York Times published an investigation of the company’s use of esoteric accounting devices such as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich” to route profits in ways that minimized tax liabilities or eliminated them entirely. A year later, the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report providing additional details on Apple’s tax tricks. It also held hearings in which Apple CEO Tim Cook insisted what the company was doing was simply “prudent” management while Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul brought shame on himself by declaring that Apple was owed an apology.

While Congress has done little to thwart corporate tax dodging, the EC used the Senate report to launch an investigation of Apple that resulted in the recent ruling. Now some members of Congress are making fools of themselves by protesting that ruling.

As Apple’s global tax dodging has gotten the most attention, the company has been able to avoid some domestic taxes with much less bother. That because states and localities routinely offer the kind of special tax deals to individual companies that are banned in Europe, more so now that Ireland’s attempted end-run was rejected.

This is seen most clearly in the subsidy packages that Apple and other tech giants such as Facebook and Google receive when they build new data centers necessary to handle the ever-increasing volume of human activity taking place in “the cloud.” Although the decision as to where to locate the facilities is based primarily on considerations such as the availability of low-cost energy (data centers are power hogs), these companies want to receive large amounts of taxpayer assistance.

As my colleague Kasia Tarczynska points out in a forthcoming report on the subject, companies such as Apple regularly negotiate subsidy packages and special tax breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars for data centers that typically create only a few dozen jobs.

In North Carolina, Apple successfully pressured the state to allow it to calculate its income taxes through a special formula that will save the company an estimated $300 million over the 30-year life of the agreement. Local officials provided property tax abatements worth about $20 million more. All this for a project that was to create only about 50 permanent jobs. Despite its $1 billion cost, the facility did little to boost the local economy. “Apple really doesn’t mean a thing to this town,” a resident told a reporter in 2011. Apple went on to receive generous subsidy packages for additional data centers in Oregon and Nevada.

Apple’s various forms of tax avoidance are reminders that large corporations, even those that profess to have enlightened social views, don’t have respect for government and resent having to follow its rules. Rather than pay taxes and follow regulations, they prefer to make charitable contributions and undertake corporate social responsibility initiatives. In other words, they want to do things on their own terms and not comply with the same obligations as everyone else. Kudos to Europe for beginning to put Apple in its place.

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