Apple and Taxes: What the New York Times Missed
I have never seen the exterior of the offices of Braeburn Capital in Reno, Nevada, and so I have the New York Times to thank for the photograph of its offices that accompanied its Sunday front-page story on how Apple avoids paying certain taxes, among them California state corporate income taxes.
Six years ago this month, I revealed in Businessweek that Apple had incorporated in Nevada where the corporate tax rate is zero. So I found the Times’ account — written by Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski, about the many financial tricks that Apple employs to minimize its tax exposure — to contain a lot of old news, but also some new, fascinating details. Who couldn’t love a phrase like “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich” to describe arcane accounting and legal tricks?
But the implication the story leaves a reader with — that Apple is somehow doing society a disservice by not paying its fair share of corporate taxes — is simply wrong on many levels. The most dubious of the lines that the Times attempts to draw is between Apple and the budget crisis at De Anza College, a Cupertino community college where Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was once a student. The college is facing a “death spiral” because of a decline in funding from the state. This funding, the reader is led to conclude, would be more plentiful if corporations like Apple were to step up and pay, and not escape the tax bill by setting up an office in neighboring Nevada.
What the Times fails to make clear is how community colleges are funded in California. The picture is much more complicated. California community colleges draw the majority of their funding from the state’s general fund — which is drawn directly from the state’s personal and corporate income taxes — and from local property taxes collected by counties. As of the 2009-2010 budget cycle, these two buckets made up about 88 percent of the system’s funding. State lottery funds, federal funds and student fees made up the remainder.
Tax policy wonks — which I’m not — will remember that California was the birthplace of the property tax revolt movement in the 1970s. In 1978, California voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that limits the amount by which property taxes can increase each year. Since then, at least one estimate pegs the amount that the state’s taxpayers have avoided paying at north of half a trillion dollars as of 2009. In February, the property tax shortfall facing the state community-college system was $41 million. Conclusion: If there is to be blame for the shortage of taxpayer funding at De Anza College, a healthy portion of it should be laid at the door of California’s own voters and taxpayers, who in 1978 thought that property-tax limitations were a good idea.
I had a few other problems with the story. Take sales taxes. When you buy a Mac in New York, you pay a sales tax of 8.875 percent. For a base-level iMac, priced at $1,199, that works out to more than $106 in taxes. While some states charge no sales tax — Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon — the average sales tax in the U.S. works out to 9.6 percent.
Putting aside the fact that the average sales tax in Canada is higher, let’s assume that Apple’s North American sales of $38.3 billion in its fiscal 2011 were taxed at that rate, and do the math: We get $3.7 billion in sales taxes paid into the coffers of states and municipalities, except in those five states that have no such tax. That amounts to more than 1.5 times the $2.4 billion the Times says Apple would have owed the federal government. Factor in VAT and other similar taxes in the U.K. and throughout Europe, and you get the idea that Apple is generating tax revenue aplenty on the sale of its goods. Yes, those taxes are passed on to customers. But isn’t that the case with every tax a corporation making consumer products pays?
Finally, you may remember that earlier this year Apple released an extensive report on the number of jobs it had created and supported both through direct employment and in the orbit of the products it creates. It seemed an odd thing for Apple to release at the time, and now we know why: It reads almost like it was prepared by Apple in advance, knowing this story was in the pipeline at the Times. The final number, by its reckoning: 514,000 U.S. jobs are created by the Apple universe, including 47,000 employees; 210,000 jobs were created as part of the app economy, which didn’t even exist until 2008.
Assuming that each of those jobs pays a salary north of $35,350 a year, taxes collected on that income could range anywhere from 25 percent to 35 percent, depending on the income bracket. And that’s before accounting for any stock-based compensation.
At this point, the discussion turns to a deeper question: Is it better for society to have a company pay more in taxes, or to create more jobs? You can argue that had Apple not taken advantage of the various strategies it employed to pay less taxes, it might not have flourished as well as it has, and thus created fewer jobs. But people smarter than I will likely hash out the finer points of this argument in the coming days.