Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! CounterPunch is entirely supported by our readers. Your donations pay for our small staff, tiny office, writers, designers, techies, bandwidth and servers. We don’t owe anything to advertisers, foundations, one-percenters or political parties. You are our only safety net. Please make a tax-deductible donation today.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How Google Became One of America’s Biggest Tax Dodgers

by DARWIN BOND-GRAHAM

Yesterday San Francisco’s politicians announced that Google, Apple, and other Silicon Valley companies will be charged for the use of the city’s bus stops. Until yesterday the private buses, untold numbers of them, enter the city each morning to pick up thousands workers headed for corporate campuses in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to the south. Each evening they return to drop employees off, and while they clog city streets and impede the movement of the city’s public buses, the companies haven’t been made to pay a dime for using taxpayer infrastructure.

Private tech company buses are arguably the most conspicuous symbol of inequality and displacement that is tearing California’s Bay Area apart. The hyper-mobility they provide for tech company employees translates into rising rents in the Bay Area’s urban cores of San Francisco and Oakland and displaces those whose incomes aren’t keeping pace with real estate prices. The tech company buses are also a lesson in how many Silicon Valley giants have become incredibly valuable. The biggest tech companies thrive off taxpayer supports, be they bus stops, public universities, or telecommunications infrastructure. At the same time they aggressively avoid taxes themselves. They’re the archetype of the free rider, the shameless citizen who takes from the collective to amass private wealth and doesn’t give back to community without a fight.

Google, for example, will now pay San Francisco about $100,000 a year to run its buses into into the city, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Agency’s director Ed Reiskin. Google, however, is one of the most aggressive tax avoiders. $100,000 is insignificant to Google’s bottom line. It’s 0.000002 percent of Google’s 2012 revenue. It’s one one-hundredth of one percent of Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s 2011 compensation. It’s hardly a rounding error in the company’s quarterly accounting reports.

The statutory U.S. corporate income tax rate is 35%, meaning that a corporation should be expected to pay 35 cents of every dollar in earnings to the feds. Depending on who you ask, Google pays much less than this, mainly by employing a strategy known as transfer pricing.

Through transfer pricing Google assigns ownership of valuable intellectual property to foreign subsidiaries, and claims that certain economic activities take place in a specific jurisdiction that are outside of the Internal Revenue Service’s reach, and inside a low tax jurisdiction. This jurisdiction is Ireland, where many of the tech companies have established offices in order to take advantage of virtually non-existent tax rates. Google and its tech industry peers state ritualistically in their securities filings that all revenues assigned to these low-tax, offshore jurisdictions will be indefinitely reinvested abroad. Here’s what Google actually wrote in their 2012 annual report:

“As of December 31, 2012, $31.4 billion of the $48.1 billion of cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities was held by our foreign subsidiaries. If these funds are needed for our operations in the U.S., we would be required to accrue and pay U.S. taxes to repatriate these funds. However, our intent is to permanently reinvest these funds outside of the U.S. and our current plans do not demonstrate a need to repatriate them to fund our U.S. operations.”

According to a Thompson-Reuters report from last year, Google’s 2012 effective tax rate on overseas earnings was 2.6% on 5.8 billion in profits. That’s more cash for the pile of offshore ocean money. Microsoft paid a rate of approximately 9.4% on a much larger $20.6 billion in profits. Apple dodged and weaved the best, paying a mere 1.9% on 36.8 billion.

So what’s wrong with setting up shop in the lowest tax jurisdiction? If it’s legal we can hardly blame the tech companies, right?

The problem is that transfer pricing is an illusion that is dishonest about what makes these companies valuable, and how they generate these profits. The value of these companies’ brands, their technologies, their most productive workforces, and the physical and regulatory infrastructure they use to build their markets exists in the United States, and in other nation’s with higher tax rates. These high tax rates support these complex institutions that create value. What the tech companies are doing, in essence, is using the public sector’s store of goods to obtain valuable services—from eduction for skilled labor, to transportation infrastructure, to federally funded research for new product ideas and fields—but they’re not paying back into the tills that support these goods.

In Google’s case there are clear examples of this one way flow of value. Google Maps is an amazingly useful product that brings a lot of traffic through Google’s servers, helping the company cache valuable data related to user queries, user-created maps, and to place millions of ads. Google, however, didn’t invent these maps from scratch. Instead, beginning in the 1980s, long before Google existed, the federal government funded an effort to gather and organize a huge trove of geographic data through the US Census Bureau. That project evolved into TIGER, the Census Bureau’s mapping project, and eventually Google, Microsoft, Apple and other tech companies came along and asked for the raw data. The Census Bureau handed it over at virtually no cost.

“I’m not aware of any pressure to try to recoup the cost,” Michael Ratcliff of the US Census Bureau told me last year in an interview. “Everybody realizes there’s been an enormous benefit to companies that use it. The American public has already paid for it. This is public data.” The Census gave it away to Google and other tech companies just as it would give the product away to anyone who wanted to use it.

Google has now made enormous money from its maps product, even though the heaviest lifting on this technology was done by federal employees using federal funds. Google certainly added value to the maps with new features, and by making the tool accessible. The company’s aggressive tax avoidance means, however, that a share of this value isn’t being returned to one of the major sources of its creation: the federal government. Therefore the burden to fund programs like the Census Bureau’s geography program is shifted onto those who aren’t poised to game the tax code with offshore strategies.

This is basically the tech sector’s model today. It’s why protesters have been blocking Google and Apple buses in San Francisco and demanding that the companies be made to pay back into the budgets of the cities and states that they’re siphoning value from.

Darwin Bond-Graham, a contributing editor to CounterPunch, is a sociologist and author who lives and works in Oakland, CA. His essay on economic inequality in the “new” California economy appears in theJuly issue of CounterPunch magazine. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion

 

Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at http://darwinbondgraham.wordpress.com/

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
September 30, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
Thinking Dangerously in the Age of Normalized Ignorance
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel and Academic Freedom: a Closed Book
Paul Craig Roberts – Michael Hudson
Can Russia Learn From Brazil’s Fate? 
Andrew Levine
A Putrid Election: the Horserace as Farce
Mike Whitney
The Biggest Heist in Human History
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Sick Blue Line
Rob Urie
The Twilight of the Leisure Class
Vijay Prashad
In a Hall of Mirrors: Fear and Dislike at the Polls
Alexander Cockburn
The Man Who Built Clinton World
John Wight
Who Will Save Us From America?
Pepe Escobar
Afghanistan; It’s the Heroin, Stupid
W. T. Whitney
When Women’s Lives Don’t Matter
Julian Vigo
“Ooops, I Did It Again”: How the BBC Funnels Stories for Financial Gain
Howard Lisnoff
What was Missing From The Nation’s Interview with Bernie Sanders
Jeremy Brecher
Dakota Access Pipeline and the Future of American Labor
Binoy Kampmark
Pictures Left Incomplete: MH17 and the Joint Investigation Team
Andrew Kahn
Nader Gave Us Bush? Hillary Could Give Us Trump
Steve Horn
Obama Weakens Endangered Species Act
Dave Lindorff
US Propaganda Campaign to Demonize Russia in Full Gear over One-Sided Dutch/Aussie Report on Flight 17 Downing
John W. Whitehead
Uncomfortable Truths You Won’t Hear From the Presidential Candidates
Ramzy Baroud
Shimon Peres: Israel’s Nuclear Man
Brandon Jordan
The Battle for Mercosur
Murray Dobbin
A Globalization Wake-Up Call
Jesse Ventura
Corrupted Science: the DEA and Marijuana
Richard W. Behan
Installing a President by Force: Hillary Clinton and Our Moribund Democracy
Andrew Stewart
The Democratic Plot to Privatize Social Security
Daniel Borgstrom
On the Streets of Oakland, Expressing Solidarity with Charlotte
Marjorie Cohn
President Obama: ‘Patron’ of the Israeli Occupation
Norman Pollack
The “Self-Hating” Jew: A Critique
David Rosen
The Living Body & the Ecological Crisis
Joseph Natoli
Thoughtcrimes and Stupidspeak: Our Assault Against Words
Ron Jacobs
A Cycle of Death Underscored by Greed and a Lust for Power
stclair
Abu Mazen’s Balance Sheet
Kim Nicolini
Long Drive Home
Louisa Willcox
Tribes Make History with Signing of Grizzly Bear Treaty
Art Martin
The Matrix Around the Next Bend: Facebook, Augmented Reality and the Podification of the Populace
Andre Vltchek
Failures of the Western Left
Ishmael Reed
Millennialism or Extinctionism?
Frances Madeson
Why It’s Time to Create a Cabinet-Level Dept. of Native Affairs
Laura Finley
Presidential Debate Recommendations
José Negroni
Mass Firings on Broadway Lead Singers to Push Back
Leticia Cortez
Entering the Historical Dissonance Surrounding Desafinados
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi: ‘My Life is My Message’
Charles R. Larson
Queen Lear? Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”
David Yearsley
Bring on the Nibelungen: If Wagner Scored the Debates
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]