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Frank Clemente: Apple Tax Dodging Highlights Need for Reform

tax-newTalk about taking your business to “The Cloud.” In an ingenious effort to avoid billions of dollars in taxes, Apple, Inc., has been levitating subsidiaries between American and Irish soil, claiming that from a tax-law perspective, they exist in neither country and so are subject to neither country’s taxing authority. And, sadly, the scheme has worked: no taxes have been paid to the U.S., a relatively paltry sum was paid to Ireland.

Though this was Apple’s most audacious tax-dodging scheme, it wasn’t the only one.

Congressional investigators recently found that Apple had avoided paying virtually any taxes on $74 billion in offshore profits over the past four years. That’s a big loss of revenue needed to hire teachers, build roads or pay down debt.

How does Appe manage to skip out on its tax responsibilities on such a massive scale?  It shuffles profits generated by American ideas, American workers and American consumers through shell companies in tax havens such as Ireland, where it’s subject to few or no levies.  And it’s not alone among corporate giants. According to the Congressional joint tax committee, ending this kind of tax avoidance by big corporations would raise almost $600 billion over the next decade.

But Apple deserves special attention. Admired for its technological prowess and often in contention for the nation’s most valuable company, it’s a leader as well in stashing profits—over $100 billion today—overseas and out of reach of U.S. taxes.

Some might be tempted to praise such aggressive tax strategies. Except that needy kids are being kicked off Head Start, grandmothers are getting fewer Meals on Wheels, and disabled students are being denied special education—all because of ham-handed across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the “sequester.”  By cleaning up the whole overseas corporate tax mess we could restore 60 percent of the $1 trillion in sequester cuts scheduled for the next decade.

But Apple and its corporate brethren—backed by their allies in Congress—want to do the opposite. Rather than close corporate tax loopholes, they want to reward corporations with money stashed overseas (Bloomberg estimates a staggering $1.9 trillion) with a temporary tax amnesty, called a “repatriation holiday.” That one-time pass would then be followed by a permanent tax amnesty, known as a “territorial tax system.”

Corporate executives argue that drastically lowering the U.S. taxes charged on “repatriated” cash would encourage companies to make investments and create jobs here.  The trouble is we’ve tested that theory already and it failed miserably.  When Congress declared a corporate tax holiday of drastically reduced rates on foreign cash in 2005, money came home all right, but instead of job-creating investment, it was mostly used to pad the pockets of wealthy executives and shareholders, according to the Congressional Research Service.  Worse, in the years that followed, that first amnesty has actually accelerated the flight of cash overseas as corporations quite reasonably await the next one.

A territorial tax system would end the waiting game by completely eliminating U.S. taxes on overseas profits made by American corporations. This would give a green light to Apple and others to use tax dodges to shift capital to overseas tax havens that assess little or no corporate income tax, draining our treasury, lowering wages and eliminating jobs at home.  It also disadvantages purely domestic companies – often small businesses – that play by the rules and pay their fair share.

We need corporate tax reform, but not the type—like repatriation and territoriality—that encourages, rather than reduces, corporate tax dodging. And we don’t need reform that fails to generate any new revenue from Corporate America (which so far has contributed nothing to deficit reduction), and instead uses any increased collections from closing loopholes to reduce tax rates.  A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that there was no correlation between lower corporate tax rates and economic growth—if anything, the economy did better when corporate rates were higher.

There’s real corporate tax reform legislation in Congress right now that would end offshore tax loopholes and raise $600 billion over 10 years – money to restore battered public services, rev up our economy and pay down debt. This is true corporate tax reform would finally end the accounting magic show and force Apple’s floating subsidiaries back down to earth.

Frank Clemente is executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness.

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