Tax avoidance, and corporate responsibility

uncle-sam-pay-your-taxes1Would you consider Apple, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Microsoft, Nike and PepsiCo good corporate citizens? Certainly they position themselves that way, and they deserve credit for their leadership around human rights (Apple, Nike), climate change (GE), water (Coca-Cola), renewable energy (Google, Microsoft) and sustainable agriculture (PepsiCo).

But when it comes to paying corporate income taxes, they have some explaining to do.

That, at least, is the conclusion that I came to after reading an excellent report on tax avoidance titled Offshore Shell Games, and published last month by Citizens for Tax Justice and US PIRG.

Corporate taxation is all over the news these days as US firms move their headquarters overseas for tax reasons, in a process known as inversion. But aggressive maneuvering to avoid taxes is nothing new, as I wrote today in a story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how the story begins:

America’s a great country. That’s why people from all over the world — including, lately and tragically, thousands of poor children from Central America — clamor to get in. So why are some of America’s wealthiest companies trying to get out?

It’s simple, really — they don’t want to pay US taxes.

You’ve probably heard about Walgreen’s, your neighborhood pharmacy that is contemplating moving its headquarters to Switzerland to reduce its tax bill. Medtronic, the big medical device company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has plans to move to Ireland, for tax-avoidance purposes. Then there’s Mylan, a maker of generic drugs based near Pittsburgh, Pennsylavia, which intends to incorporate in the Netherlands, where the tax rate is lower. Mylan’s CEO, as it happens, is Heather Bresch — the daughter of US Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat — and she says she has no choice but to go.

Other companies aren’t going so far as to relocate their headquarters, a process known as inversion that often requires them to acquire a company based elsewhere. Instead, to avoid US taxes, they are parking their earnings offshore, often in tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands that levy no corporate income taxes. That tactic, which like the inversions is legal, is being employed by companies that position themselves as good corporate citizens — among them Apple, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Microsoft, Nike and PepsiCo.

Exploiting loopholes in the tax laws may or may not be legal–the IRS is hopelessly outgunned by big corporate tax departments–but it’s unethical.

The report from Citizens for Tax Justice and US PIRG, which makes for surprisingly compelling reading, details a number of questionable tax avoidance strategies that allow companies to shift earnings, purely for tax purposes, from high-tax jurisdictions like the US to tax havens. Here are my favorite fun facts from the report:

The report found that subsidiaries of US companies reported earning $94bn in Bermuda, which has a gross domestic product of just $6bn. That doesn’t compute. US firms reported earning another $51bn in the Cayman Islands, where GDP is about $3bn.

This is outrageous, and please don’t tell me that the way to fix the problem is to reduce the admittedly high US corporate income tax rate. The US cannot compete with places where the tax rate is zero.

All of these companies, of course, benefit enormously from government services–public education, police, the rule of law, highways, etc. Those companies that don’t pay their fair share shift the burden to others–small businesses that can’t afford high-priced accountants, companies that don’t have overseas operations and therefore can’t take advantage of the opportunity engage in tax-avoiding shenanigans and, of course, the rest of us.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Amazon’s a great company. But good? Nope.

amazon-logoLike millions of people, I like to shop at Amazon. But the more I learn about the company, the less I like it.

Amazon’s  performance on environmental and social issues has been truly dismal, as a I wrote in a story posted today on Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how the story begins:

Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric and one of American’s most influential business leaders, likes to say that “if you want to be a great company today, you also have to be a good company.”

Another celebrated chief executive named Jeff — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO– is putting that proposition to the test.

Amazon is, in many ways, a great company. But good? Nope.

Amazon doesn’t publish a sustainability report, probably because it would have little to say. It doesn’t respond to the Carbon Disclosure Project. (More than 80% of big companies do.) It’s ranked very low by Climate Counts, which rates companies on their efforts to mitigate climate change. Amazon’s  data centers get low marks from Greenpeace.

Nor does Amazon do well on social and political issues. Until Bezos agreed to install electricity last year, warehouse workers literally toiled in sweatshops where the temperatures could top 90 degrees. The company has fiercely fought efforts by states to collect sales taxes, using bullying tactics at times. If you believe the Seattle Times, and I do, the company gives less to charities than other Seattle companies and “cuts an astoundingly low profile in the civic life of its hometown.” For more, read the rest of the Guardian story. [click to continue…]

My Steve Jobs problem

In business, and in life, we’d like to believe that good behavior will be rewarded. Most books on management talk about treating people with respect, or being firm but not harsh, or being generous about sharing credit. What goes around comes around, right? Right.

So what are we to make of Steve Jobs?

Walter Isaacson

I’ve just read Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s riveting biography of the Apple founder and CEO. It’s a terrific book, but an unnerving one–because Jobs was successful despite some sneaky dealings, despite his utter lack of interest in corporate social responsibility, at least as it is conventionally defined, and despite treating people in ways that violate most everything that’s taught at business schools, or, for that matter, in kindergarten.

He could be cold, unpleasant, petulant, arrogant, abusive and self-absorbed. What’s more, this dark side of Jobs seems to be  intertwined with his brilliant and obsessive devotion to making great products at Apple. A “demented genius,” one reviewer called him. Having said that, Jobs could also be sweet, vulnerable, boyish, charming and endearing–when he chose to be.

It’s hard to overstate what Jobs accomplished in his 56 years. No, he didn’t cure cancer or alleviate global poverty but he remade a half dozen industries, all with panache: personal computers, music, animated movies (with Pixar), phones, tablet computing and digital publishing. My life is richer, more fun and more productive because of Jobs. I’m writing this on a MacBook, and I own an iPhone4s, an iPad, and a bunch of iPods. I’ve run hundreds of miles with my Nano, loaded with podcasts or music from iTunes, and  I’ve spent, conservatively, close to $10,000 on Apple products for myself, my wife and daughters. [click to continue…]

100 Best Corporate Citizens? What a CROck!

google_logoGoogle challenges Internet censorship in China. It invests in solar power, electric cars, geothermal energy and the smart grid, and runs an array of programs to help its employees become more “green.” It’s consistently voted one of the best places to work. And it has an inspiring mission: to organize all of the world’s information.

Yet Google doesn’t even come close to making the 2010 list of 100 Best Corporate Citizens put together by CRO Magazine, now known as Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

Nor does Timberland, a pioneer in corporate responsibility, which monitors its global supply chain, provides employees with generous benefits including time off to volunteer and experiments with labels on its shoes and boots that disclose their social and environmental impact. General Electric, meanwhile, has won praise from environmental groups like the World Resources Council and Environmental Defense for its EcoMagination campaign, and it has led the battle for climate change legislation in Washington. But GE, too, didn’t make the cut.

Who did?

2597643759_083ac733b9Oil companies Hess Corp. (No. 10 on the list) , ExxonMobil (No. 51, which for years sought to delay action to deal with climate change, says Greenpeace), Occidental Petroleum (No. 26, accused of contaminating the Amazon) and Chevron (No. 56, targeted in a landmark class action suit for creating en environmental catastrophe in Ecuador).

The Southern Co. (No. 71), a coal-burning utility which led the fight against the administration’s climate change bill.

And the Newmont Mining Corp (No. 16)., whose gold mines in Nevada have been major sources of mercury pollution.

One last example. Whole Foods Market, which has done more to promote organic agriculture than any company in America, doesn’t make the list but Yum! Brands (No. 62) does. Yum!’s contributions to corporate responsibility include KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

If nothing else, all this proves that it’s not easy to make a list of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens. In fact, it’s really hard. How do you compare HP (No. 1 on the list) with Kimberly-Clark (5), Wal-Mart (21), Nike (23), Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (39),  Duke Energy (43), Citigroup (57) and Ford (88). They’re in disparate businesses, with different issues.

Simply deciding whether a single company is “good” or “bad”or somewhere in the middle involves a slew of value judgments. If you think nuclear energy will help solve the climate crisis, you’ll applaud the Southern Co. which is pushing new plants; if not, you’ll feel differently. Coca Cola (No. 8) has a great track record on water and packaging issues but the company’s core product is a sugary soft drink. Newmont Mining has an ugly history, but it’s working hard to clean up its act–how far should we look back when ranking citizenship?  Merck (17) has evidently been forgiven for the Vioxx scandal, while Pfizer is in the penalty box after paying a record fine for illegal drug marketing last fall.

Still, while some debate is inevitable, this list strikes me as way off base. [click to continue…]