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Apple, Google, Microsoft Sitting on 58 Billion in Overseas Profits, Blackmailing Us to Avoid Taxes

How does it feel to have the jobs gun pointed at your head? Because that’s what this is: a stickup.
 
 
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America’s largest global corporations are holding $1.5 trillion dollars in profits overseas in order to avoid US taxes. “Apple has $12 billion waiting offshore, Google has $17 billion and Microsoft, $29 billion,” reports the New York Times.

These corporations claim that if we reduce their tax rate on that cash from 35 percent to 5.25 percent (which is less than the rest of us pay in sales taxes), they will bring the money home and invest it in creating badly needed jobs. They claim that for every billion invested, 15,000 to 20,000 jobs will be created directly and indirectly, which means such a tax holiday could create up to 30 million jobs – more than enough to bring us back to full employment and then some!  

How does it feel to have the jobs gun pointed at your head? Because that’s what this is – a stickup, a robbery, job blackmail. It’s as if these corporations finally realized that they should emulate Wall Street and pick the carcass clean.  

I know, I know. But, aren’t the pro-corporate lobbyists correct when they say that we need those overseas profits here? What good will it do the unemployed if that loot isn’t repatriated? Also, doesn’t that 5.25 percent of $1.5 trillion translate into more than $50 billion in federal revenues that we’ll never see if the money stays parked overseas? And given the fact that Washington is too broke for another jobs stimulus program, don’t we have to play ball with those who have the money to move our economy? Isn’t it time to grow up and realize that we have to encourage, not vilify Corporate America in order to put our people back to work?  

Wrong on all counts. Here’s why we shouldn’t give the blackmailers the money. 

1. Companies that got the tax breaks last time didn’t create jobs. 

After the Bush administration and Congress passed the Homeland Investment Act of 2004, 800 corporations repatriated $312 billion, but didn’t create jobs, according to an in-depth study by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research (PDF). “Congressmen argued that it would create more than 500,000 jobs over two years by raising investment in the United States,” the report states.  

Here’s what actually happened:  

    “Rather than being associated with increased expenditures on domestic investment or employment, repatriations were associated with significantly higher levels of shareholder payouts, mainly through share repurchases.... A $1 increase in repatriations was associated with a $0.79 increase in share repurchases and a $0.15 increase in dividends…. [I]t is clear that they were able to reallocate funds internally to bypass the publicly stated goals of the Act.” 

In plain English that means that 94 cents of every tax break dollar enriched the shareholders. That leaves six cents on the dollar for investment in research, development and jobs. They scammed us into giving them a tax break to create jobs and then they pocketed the money instead, or as the report summarizes,  

“Firms that valued the tax holiday the most and took greatest advantageof it did not increase domestic investment or employment, instead returning virtually all of the cash they repatriated to shareholders.” 

2. The money didn’t boost jobs in the overall economy either. 

But doesn’t more money for shareholders lead to new investments and jobs all over the economy? They had to do something with the $300 billion.  

If you look at the jobs data, you’ll see a steady decline starting in June 2003, when the unemployment rate was 6.3 percent to late 2006 and early 2007 when the rate fell all the way to 4.4 percent (a number we would kill for today). So the unemployment rate started going down before the tax holiday began, and unemployment continued down during the holiday and after it ended. The unemployment rate goes down at a slow, but steady rate showing no sign at all of a bump from the tax holiday. 

3. The tax holiday money probably ended up in Wall Street’s fantasy finance casino.

So where did all that tax holiday money go after the shareholders got it? No one knows for sure, but I’d be willing to wager that most of it ended up on Wall Street helping to fuel the boom in junk mortgage-related securities, which in turn pumped up the housing bubble. By 2005, wealthy shareholders in major corporations had more money than they had real investment opportunities. And Wall Street, now deregulated, solved that little problem by creating a vast array of garbage securities that the rating agencies blessed with AAA ratings. This Wall Street garbage, in turn, created an enormous demand for millions of high risk mortgages. If you could breathe you could get a mortgage. The tax holiday, no doubt, fueled the calamitous Wall Street machine. 

Is there any evidence for this claim? It’s circumstantial. In 2004, there were $157 billion in new collateralized debt obligations – those giant pools of mortgaged-back securities that turned toxic. In 2005 and 2006, as the tax holiday fully took hold, new CDOs climbed from $272 billion to $557 billion. Then in 2007, it decreased to $486 billion before crashing to next to nothing in 2008. It may just be a coincidence, but it sure looks like the tax holiday gave the CDO market a nice boost.   

4. Corporate America is already sitting on a trillion dollars they are not investing.

The largest American corporations have tons of cash they are not moving into job-creating investments (the 500 companies in the S&P index alone are sitting on $960 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal). Why? Because unemployment is still so high and the recovery still so weak, that they have plenty of workers and productive capacity to fulfill the tepid demand.

This is the same problem that John Maynard Keynes identified during the Great Depression – an economy with high unemployment can get stuck in a trough where people are fearful of consuming and corporations are fearful of investing. The answer then, and the answer now, is for the government to put the unemployed back to work doing the vital business of the nation, even if it runs up the deficit some more. We could use a vast army of workers to weatherize buildings and to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. These are the potential consumers that could spur corporations to create jobs.  

5. Not only didn’t corporations create jobs during the last tax holiday, but they actually destroyed them.

Corporations are in business to make as much money as possible. If creating jobs helps do that, fine. If killing jobs is the highest profit strategy, then the jobs go. During the 2005 tax holiday, it was job-killing time. As the New York Times reports, 

    “Indeed, 60 percent of the benefits went to just 15 of the largest United States multinational companies — many of which laid off domestic workers, closed plants and shifted even more of their profits and resources abroad in hopes of cashing in on the next repatriation holiday.” 

6. Corporate America used the last tax holiday to prepare for the next one.

Did you catch that last line? That’s quite an accusation because it means that America’s largest corporations were preparing for the day when they could again jam through another tax holiday.  

They couldn’t come begging again during the 2008 crash – too unseemly. They couldn’t stick their hand out while the bailouts were flowing to Wall Street – too many ahead in the line. And they couldn’t pretend to create jobs while the stimulus package was in effect – too hard to claim that the tax holiday was needed. But now that we’re deep in debt and now that no political party has the nerve to tax Wall Street to create the jobs that the Wall Street crash destroyed, this is the perfect time to execute the tax holiday game plan. 

7. It’s all about eliminating taxes on Corporate America.

After the last tax holiday corporations moved even more money overseas than they did before, concludes a report by Thomas Brennan of the Northwestern School of Law:  

    “[S]ince the holiday window, there has been a dramatic increase in the rate at which firms add to their stockpile of foreign earnings kept overseas…. This signal operates to condition those subject to the rules to anticipate the opportunities of future holidays and arrange their affairs accordingly….The fact that such conditioning can occur is certainly not new, and it dates at least back to Pavlov and his dogs.  

But our Pavlovian corporations are smarter. They know that if they continue moving more and more money overseas, they can blackmail Congress into permanently reducing  corporate taxes to a pathetic 5.25 percent or lower. Why not zero? Already various conservative leaders are jumping on the bandwagon.  

So, if you still think that a rerun of the tax holiday fantasy is going to create new jobs, please share your excellent meds with the rest of us.    

Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green, 2009).
 
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