Paul L. Caron

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fleischer: Dear Apple

FleischerVictor Fleischer (Colorado; moving to San Diego), Dear Apple:

Apple Inc.
One Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA
United States of America
Or maybe Ireland

Dear Mr./Ms. Apple,

I am writing to you at the request of Senator Rand Paul, who suggested that I apologize to you for investigating your offshore tax planning.

I should note at the outset that I wasn’t sure how to address this letter. Mr. Paul said to apologize to Apple, but I’m not sure if Apple is a person, and if so if you are a boy or a girl. I thought you were a company, but after hearing Mr. Paul tell the story of how you recovered from near death in the 1990s, maybe you are some kind of superhero.

I’m also not really sure where you live. You have an address in California, but your tax returns also claim residency in Ireland, except not really. So I hope this letter gets to you.

I have to say, the whole Ireland thing kind of sounded like a scam. I was relieved when your CEO, Timothy Cook, explained that you don’t use any tax gimmicks. A professor testifying at the hearing yesterday said that he nearly fell off his chair when he read Mr. Cook’s statement, but that’s probably because tax professors are known for being silly and theatrical. You should see what their conferences are like.

So, I apologize. In order to improve our service to you in the future, we are implementing two new changes in our customer service policy.

The first is a promise to do a better job of scheduling. If we have to mention taxes again, I’ll be sure to just add it to the agenda when your lobbyists drop by for a closed-door meeting. And I don’t mean to badger you, but Google and Microsoft spend a lot more money on lobbying, and we do offer special treatment for regular donors.

The second is a promise to stop holding Congressional tax investigations. The IRS never has enough to do, and they are pretty entrepreneurial. I’m sure they are competent to handle all of this on their own without our help or oversight.

Finally, I want to emphasize just how much we appreciate your willingness to comply with your legal obligation to pay taxes. If you think about it, taxes are really just a form of charitable giving. Our goal is to reach a high level of participation from both American and Irish corporations, and your donation in any amount makes a difference. We also welcome any in-kind donations in the form of iPhones and iPads.  My daughter knows how to use them.

I hope you can forgive us. In hindsight, we were cavalier in our efforts to find out more about how our tax system is or isn’t working. We know now that it’s not really any of our business, and promise to base any future tax legislation on naïve intuition and wild rhetoric instead of facts.

Your humble servants,

The United States Senate

P.S. At your earliest convenience, please let us know what stance we should take on immigration policy.

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This idea that corporations have a moral duty to pay tax doesn't make any sense. They have a duty to pay what is owed, not a penny more. That's the same duty we all have. Am I a culprit because I use all the tax planning tools at my disposal? In a sense, I am expecting others to pay for government. If I am a culprit, then I hope you stop your own individual tax planning.

These practices aren't as opaque or hidden as the press makes them seem. Plenty of people in Treasury come out of the private sector. The problem is that Congress has chosen a system of taxation that's unworkable.

Posted by: HTA | May 24, 2013 11:37:20 AM

The people who complain about slave labor jumping from factory windows and corporations avoiding taxes are the same ones who fawn all over Apple and buy its products.

Posted by: Woody | May 24, 2013 10:23:26 AM

Ann, I disagree with you.

(1) A prudent, responsible CEO needs to increase profits by legally reducing tax payments. We shouldn't be outraged if a CEO operates within the boundaries of the law to maximize after tax cash.

A prudent, responsible CEO needs to weigh increasing profits by legally reducing tax payments against the reputational damage caused by his company acting as an apparently irresponsible citizen.

I suggest that any company acting as a responsible citizen will, in the long term, achieve sustainable profitability more often than one that does not because its customers, its lifeblood, eventually see every company for what it is and accept or reject it on that basis.

(2) Congress is to blame for the current system. It shouldn't haul in a CEO and scold him/her for protecting company money from taxation.

Government is only partly to blame for current systems of taxation because all law is a reaction to new threats. Without new threats, there would be no new law.

The real culprits are the corporates who choose to piss on the rest of us by choosing to maximise profit and socialise risk, ie expect the rest of us to finance the infrastructure on which they depend and, in extremis, pick up the tab when their plans disintegrate.

That it's taken so long to identify and bring out into the light of day what large corporates have been up to with tax, due largely to the fiercely guarded opacity of their machinations, is the main culprit for the law lagging behind the threat in this instance.

Posted by: Nick James | May 24, 2013 5:42:57 AM

I look forward to Prof. Fleischer and the New York Time's 6 part investigation into:

1. New York Times Co. issuing debt/warrant securities to Banco Inbursa, S.A., Institucion de Banca Multiple, Grupo Financiero Inbursa and Inmobiliaria Carso, S.A. de C.V., obtaining interest U.S. deductions but conspiring to avoid U.S. interest income by careful scheming around the portfolio business gimmick.
2. How much foreign earnings reside in New York Times Co.'s 20 foreign subsidiaries?
3. Sale/Leaseback of HQ in New York City.
4. The $4.5 million golden parachute to the former CEO
5. New York Times Co.'s gimmicks like compensating employees in options, nonqualified deferred compensation plans, paying exorbitant salary to owner/figurehead Arthur Sulzberger Jr., classifying service providers as independent contractors, etc.
6. The Sulzberger family's estate planning gimmicks-- private foundations, valuation discounts, grantor trusts, life insurance, etc.

I'm not concerned about any of that, actually, and don't know about any of it. But I bet dollars to donuts that New York Times Co. is dedicated to doing all it can to serve its customers, owners, and employees, while letting politicians take care of the public fisc.

Posted by: Yo Gabba Gabba | May 23, 2013 12:32:09 PM

OP, true, but I feel like the average NYT reader will come away with the wrong impression. I rarely defend Rand Paul, but if you read his statement, it can be boiled down to two points: (1) A prudent, responsible CEO needs to increase profits by legally reducing tax payments. We shouldn't be outraged if a CEO operates within the boundaries of the law to maximize after tax cash. (2) Congress is to blame for the current system. It shouldn't hall in a CEO and scold him/her for protecting company money from taxation.

Is anyone here going to disagree with those two points? Why is any satire necessary?

Posted by: HTA | May 23, 2013 11:42:13 AM!

Posted by: Ann | May 23, 2013 11:18:32 AM

HTA: Parody and satire usually do require oversimplification.

Posted by: OP | May 23, 2013 10:04:29 AM

So Prof. Fleischer blames Congress for "poor institutional design" in his Pro Apologia for the roiling IRS scandal (posted elsewhere here) but mocks a large multi-national business for using the same "institutional design" to pay as little tax as legally possible. Anti-business, pro-statist government bias knows no subtlety.

Posted by: TexEcon | May 23, 2013 9:04:38 AM

I have incredible respect for Prof. Fleischer, but this is an oversimplification of both Apple's tax planning and Rand Paul's comments.

Posted by: HTA | May 23, 2013 8:13:25 AM

This was fantastic. Thank you, Prof Fleischer.

Posted by: Unemployed_Northeastern | May 23, 2013 7:08:00 AM