The Apple tax bandwagon

Noted tax expert[1] Robert Reich lays into Apple's tax affairs in the Guardian:

The same disconnect is breaking out in the US. A Senate report criticises Apple for shifting billions of dollars in profits into Irish affiliates where its tax rate is less than 2%, yet a growing chorus of senators and representatives call for lower corporate taxes in order to make the US more competitive.
Nice strawman, Robbie m' boy. Apple isn't shifting profits out of the US. Apple is making profits outside the US (principally throughout Europe), registering income in its office in the low-tax environment of Eire - as explicitly provisioned in European laws - and is not moving such profits back into the USA because it doesn't want to pay 35% in tax for the privilege. It would rather keep profits abroad and look for opportunities to use them.

If the USA wants to see any tax from this money earned abroad, it will have to be repatriated into the USA in order to be taxable. Apple can't be forced to repatriate that money. In fact, Apple would rather raise $17bn of money via a debt offering than repatriate money from Eire.

Robert Reich also doesn't seem to pay much attention to his tax return:

Individual states in the US have embarked on their own races to the bottom, seeking to lure investments and jobs – often from neighbouring states – with lower taxes, higher subsidies, reduced regulation and lower real wages. Here again, the new generation of information technologies is intensifying the race.
I'd point out that Apple, Facebook, Cisco and Google are all headquartered in California - with one of the highest state tax rates in the USA. Jed Kolko from real estate firm Trulia additionally points out that the race to the bottom for taxes, such as it is, applies to people not firms. A lot of cutting edge IT firms still rise in Silicon Valley due to a combination of people for hire, VC firms and the pleasant environment. Tax competition isn't likely to change this very much.

Here comes the pitch:

Similarly, the EU could be a bargaining agent for its citizens if it were to condition access to its hugely valuable market on paying taxes in proportion to a global corporation's EU earnings, as well as making investments (including research and development, and jobs) in similar proportion.
So as well as paying sales taxes on everything you sell in the EU, you'd have to pay additional income taxes on the profits you make in the EU (which are then taxed again when and if they are repatriated to the USA to pay shareholders.) You'd have to invest in R+D in the EU, no matter whether you can find a good environment for that research. Someone in the government is going to have to decide whether what you're doing is actually R+D and whether you're contributing enough money to your EU research facilities. What could possibly go wrong?

Reich's take on the implications of this are ass-backwards to mine:

As a member of the EU, Britain would have more bargaining leverage than it would if it bargained separately. Hence, an important reason for Britain to remain in the EU: rather than a race to the bottom, the UK would thereby join in a race to the top.
On the other hand, if the EU takes this approach, and the UK makes a more congenial business environment, the UK will benefit from the additional taxes and R+D facilities because they're not burdening the businesses with additional regulation. I'm surprised that Robert Reich hasn't come across the Prisoner's Dilemma and its implications in his academic studies.

[1] Not really; professor of public policy at the University of Berkeley, California. He knows about as much about tax as I do about sewer planning. He was Labor Secretary under Clinton and lobbied for a minimum wage increase, which should calibrate one's expectations about his economic nous.


CYA is SOP at the MoD

Following Wednesday's brutal killing of a soldier, the MoD is keen to slam the stable door shut:

Defence sources said the order had been given that uniform should not be worn by those travelling alone, or on public transport as a "common sense precaution" immediately after the killing
Except - and correct me if I'm wrong here - the slain soldier was not in military uniform of any kind. He was wearing a Help for Heroes T-shirt. The killers (who appear to have been acting alone) seem to have had additional information identifying him as a soldier, such as following him from the barracks.

The MoD REMFs issuing this order should be pressed to explain a) how absence of military uniform will prevent those anti-military elements from identifying soldiers in other ways and b) if these homicidal idiots were acting alone, why there is any reason to believe the current known threat to military personnel is any different from last week when they were not offering this advice. "Security" as a blanket response should be publicly derided, or at least run by a suitably cleared and independent politician to confirm that the security issue is real. Optionally, they should also explain why, if there is a significant short-term threat to personal safety of military personnel, said personnel should not be carrying personal sidearms.

I hate this kind of instinctive cover-your-arse move from the desk security weasels at the MoD. Either they have to admit that they are powerless to stop this kind of attack - in which case, what are we paying them for? - or they generate this fog of pointless and annoying restrictions solely for their own personal benefit to be seen as "doing something".

Smug fruitivists

If there's one thing that really gets on my mammary glands, it's shrill self-righteous protestors at shareholder meetings, and McDonald's recent event is a case in point. Original USA Today report here.

'Mr. Thompson, don't you want kids to be healthy so they can live a long and healthy life?' she asked during the meeting's question and answer session.
Hannah has been well schooled in healthy eating; her mother, Kia, is a children's nutritional activist and creator of 'Today I Ate a Rainbow' - a game encouraging children to eat different fruits.
Well, that was diligent research by the reporters from just the name of the girl - turning up the mother's occupation and commercial interests. I'm sure that they didn't do anything like take this information from a press release handed out by the girl's mother and not report this. Heaven forfend.

Incidentally, I'm curious to know whether Hannah is a shareholder. Her mother might be (probably a single-digit clutch of shares, purchased solely for attendance rights) but it seems unlikely, if not impossible, for Hannah to hold the shares. Anyone know?

So the McDonald's CEO took the question at face value:

"We don't sell junk food," he said. "My kids also eat McDonald's."
Thompson noted that he — like other parents — watches what his kids eat. "We cook lots of fruits and veggies at home," he said. He also noted that McDonald's sells fruits (apple slices in kids meals) and veggies (including side salads on the Dollar Menu). He also said that McDonald's recently began to sell fat-free chocolate milk.
This wasn't a bad deflection, but honestly I'd have gone further. After all, if I stood up at the shareholder meeting of a vegetarian restaurant chain and asked the CEO: "Mrs. Smith, don't you want kids to be healthy so they can live a long and healthy life? Why don't you serve food that's packed with protein and essential trace elements, like chicken and beef?" I wouldn't expect such a courteous response. The vegetarians in the audience would physically attack me. I don't fancy their chances though, as they'd be on average rather underweight on muscle and unaccustomed to the physical violence inherent in meat production and consumption. The press would pillory me for causing trouble. The CEO would throw her tofu snacks at me.

If you're looking to feed your children healthy food, you don't take them to McDonald's. This is not rocket science, for goodness' sake. Burgers and chips are not health food. Everyone knows this. It's not like selling roast asparagus secretly infused with lethal levels of pork fat (mmmmmm... sorry, got distracted). Now there may be parents who feed their kids McDonald's food five days a week - where do they find the money? - but it doesn't seem to me that this should be McDonald's problem.

I'm not blaming Hannah, who has no doubt been indoctrinated by her mother from an early age. I'm not even blaming her mother for being rampantly capitalist in using a McDonald's shareholder meeting as free publicity for her interactive nutrition game. (Kia Robinson, if you're reading this, I want 50c per page view of this article for the advertising.) I'm blaming a credulous press who are happy to bash "big corporations" without actually asking the difficult questions about who is failing to feed their children a balanced diet.

Piers Morgan redefining hypocrisy

Following the awful fatal machete attack on a soldier in Woolwich today there have been the predictable comments coming from the pro-gun contingent that stripping society of firearms did not seem to provide much protection for the poor guy who was run down and then machete'd to death. I'm in two minds about this claim - I can't see how even ubiquitous firearms access would have stopped the soldier being run down by the car, and the initial attack with the machete was so surprising that the guy would have likely been dead before anyone could respond. On the other hand, we would have been spared the two alleged murderers wandering around for 20 minutes, preaching to people and waving their blood-stained hands until the police managed to get a firearms unit together.

Anyway, uber-git Piers Morgan got into a Twitter spat with pro-gun Dana Loesch who asked:

Was the guy with the machete a member of the NRA? Asking for a friend.
It was slightly tasteless, but harked back to Piers Morgan's past few months of suggesting that NRA members were just as guilty for mass shootings as Adam Lanza et al.

Piers, of course, wasn't taking this lying down and blustered:

This might have worked better, however, if Dana hadn't remembered why Piers Morgan got fired as the editor of the Daily Mirror: That's right, Piers: you were fired because the paper of which you were editor ran a story based on faked photos suggesting that British soldiers were abusing an Iraqi man. If that didn't fire up the blood of people like the machete wielders and make them think that British soldiers were their enemies and deserving of death, I'd be quite surprised. Projecting much, Piers?


You can't be too careful

At least, that's the opinion of the head teacher of Haybrook College in Slough, and apparently Thames Valley Police too. A teacher overhears a 15 year old ADHD sufferer with learning difficulties talking about "buying a gun" with a friend and calls the firearms squad:

Helen Huntley, headteacher of Haybrook College, which Millside is linked to, said: "We apologise if the boy's mother is upset. But we have a duty of care and, although there was no weapon, if we hadn't taken action and there had been, the consequences could have been devastating."
The boys in question were fans of playing the video game "Call of Duty" on their Xboxes, where as you gain more credits you can spend them on firearms of increasing potency.

Thames Valley police saw fit to obtain two warrants to search the boys' homes, descending on them with six officers and a dog and arresting both boys before releasing them without charge. It's nice that they have such resources on hand to waste on a pointless exercise. I'd also be fascinated to read the warrant applications, and compare them with the log of the original report from the school, though I'd bet they'll be locked away for decades to come in order to prevent embarrassment.

Is it too much to ask for teachers and police to exercise just the tiniest amount of common sense? A 15 year old boy with ADHD and learning difficulty is rather unlikely to be able to wander in to a gun shop, plonk down several thousand in cash and walk away with a high-powered rifle or assault weapon. Wouldn't it have been just a tiny bit easier, should concerns arise, to call the boy's mother and ask for some context to the conversation? Where was common sense in all of this? What the hell kind of society do we have where a laughably implausible possibility is considered sufficient to trigger an all-arms police raid on two houses without anyone asking if there's not a lower-key way to go about this?

Helen Huntley's "but we have a duty of care..." excuse was a pathetic, mealy-mouthed attempt to disguise a gross error of judgement by both the school and police, and they should both be strongly admonished for such abuse of the public trust in them. Now, had the boy been saying "I'm going to shoot (name of friend)", and had he come from an area where boys of that age were known to have access to guns and use them on other boys, a certain concern may have been understandable. As it was, though, the magic word "gun" seems to trigger a complete abandonment of common sense. This is not as bad as suspending a 7 year old from school for nibbling a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun but it's on the path to that level of stupidity and dogma.

This is, by the way, not giving a free pass to the teen's mother; CoD games generally have an 18 rating, and for a good reason. Letting a 15 year old with ADHD play the game does not strike me as the finest bit of parenting.

[Hat tip: keen hunteress JuliaM]


A new technique in bomb disposal

Courtesy of the Daily Mail, writing about two morons carrying off 120mm shells from a beach in Dorset:

Ticking time bombs! 'Idiotic' pair pick up unexploded 2ft bombs that washed ashore - to 'sell them for scrap metal'
MoD urgently appeals for duo to contact them so they can diffuse bombs
Thank goodness for the years of study that the Daily Mail subs must have put in. Presumably the EOD officers will put the rusty shells in a tank of water and let them flake off and randomly move through the water until the shells have completely disintegrated.

Image original in case they fix it:

I agree with the point of the article, however. It's not clear to me whether they are 105mm or 120mm shells, but if someone starts banging on them with a hammer then it's not going to make too much of a difference; if the shell isn't inert, they'll be spread pretty thinly over their house walls (which will be spread across their neighbours' gardens).


Innovate the French way!

Innovation in France apparently consists of taxing successful products in order to subsidise the industries they're replacing:

Mr Lescure believes that a 4pc tax on the sale of smartphones and tablets, namely Apple's iPhone and iPad and Google Android products, could boost government revenues as consumers are spending more money on hardware than on content.
Well, yes; it could boost government revenues. Taxing everyone age 16-25 €12 would also boost government revenue, and probably have a very similar effect and generate a similar level of income. It might even be cheaper to implement. It's an interesting approach to making content generate revenue: charge for the device, and hand out that money to whichever content generator has the best political connections. I'm not sure that it's quite the best approach for the consumer, however.

France is, as a sovereign nation, entirely within its rights to tax whatever it likes and give money to whomever it likes. It is not the first nation to try to protect old media industries, nor will it be the last. I would however be interested to know what lobbying has been going on to point "businessman" Pierre Lescure [warning, contains French] at this particular approach. His Wikipedia biography seems to label him as a professional TV journalist and theatrical director, but I'm sure that had nothing to do with his selection...


A lesson in political evolution from South Africa

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has penned a very thoughtful, balanced and personally honest article arguing that South African politics has a number of very real problems:

The ANC was very good at leading us in the struggle to be free from oppression. They were a good freedom-fighting unit. But it doesn't seem to me now that a freedom-fighting unit can ­easily make the transition to becoming a political party.
And, unfortunately, we do have a weakness in our Constitution. It was important for our transition that we had proportional representation, so people were voting not for a particular candidate but for a party. We still have that system. The party that wins decides who will be its representatives, so everybody wants to get on to the party list.
You do not want to jeopardise your chances by being what you ought to be as a Member of Parliament – someone who ensures that the executive is accountable to the legislature.
Note, Lib Dems, that he's rejecting PR in favour of something more like a first-past-the-post system. Definitely go read the whole thing. I have a lot of time for Desmond Tutu, and am encouraged that he's pushing South Africans to consider fixing some of the problems their society has.

I also find it interesting that he addresses directly the Chinese influence in Africa:

China has brought a lot of benefits to Africa, with the investments it has made and the building of infrastructure, but it has come at a cost. In South Africa, a lot of people in the textile industry have been thrown out of work because the country has been flooded with cheap Chinese goods. But what has been even more distressing for me is how our country has seemed to kowtow to Beijing.
A glaring example is what they did with the Dalai Lama, when the South African government dilly-dallied with his visa so that he couldn't come to my birthday.
I remember that occasion - Tutu and the Dalai Lama ended up on a video conference because the Chinese government pressured the South African government not to grant the Dalai Lama a visa. It was amusing to see how terrified the Chinese government must be of the Dalai Lama, and doubly so because a meeting of limited news interest became a major news event. Talk about an own goal...

I have been wondering just what effects the widespread Chinese economic and political investments in Africa are intended to bring. Access to mineral resources is obvious, but they seem to be taking an unhealthy interest in ensuring African governments bend to their whims. It seems unhealthy.


It's the cover-up that kills you

The principle is old, but still valid. In this case, the killing of an American ambassador in Benghazi. Even the BBC's US correspondent Mark Mardell thinks that this is going to be a problem for the Obama administration:

However you read the motives, the state department and apparently the White House did get the CIA to change its story.
This is now very serious, and I suspect heads will roll. The White House will be on the defensive for a while.
I agree with other commentators that Hilary Clinton is the vulnerable one here. There are three main political entities - Obama, Clinton, and the Republicans driving the enquiries. Since Obama is already on his second term, the Republicans gain little from attacking him. On the other hand, Obama (like any second term president) is thinking of his legacy. So he can make common cause with the Republicans to divert blame for this (deplorable) incident to Clinton. Everybody wins! except for Hilary Clinton's 2016 Presidential campaign, which has just suffered a major hole beneath the waterline.

Incidentally, I'm not persuaded that a different attitude from the State Department would have made much difference to the eventual outcome. In hindsight, it looks marginal whether the relevant aviation and ground assets could realistically have deployed to the site of conflict in time to avoid the deaths of the ambassador and his staff. That isn't the point, however. The point is that State was faced with a prolonged attack on a US ambassador, had military assets on hand which could plausibly have made a difference (based on the information available at the time) and chose to do nothing as the personally safest option. This was a disgusting dereliction of duty which deserves to be severely punished. It won't be, of course, but the attempts to cover up what happened may end up sinking the career of people at the very top.

We can't all save for retirement

At least, according to Captain Capitalism:

Even with this idealistic scenario (where governments never default, corporations provide annualized returns of 12%, there's no inflation, and Obama's Magical Job Unicorn farts out jobs), the total global market capitalization for stocks and bonds will be....
$665 trillion.
Still about 35% short of the [$1 quadrillion] total [needed to support all retirees].
Based on the Retirement Calculator if I want a retirement income of £30K at a realistic retirement age, I'd have to save £1M by the time I retire. Ouch

These figures may be seized upon by the pro-Government folks to illustrate the inherent folly in private saving-for-retirement schemes. Unfortunately they forget that governments don't have a magic money tree, unless they can control their own currency and let the money printing presses rip - thereby impoverishing the currently-employed for the benefit of retirees. Any illusion that the Government is "providing for" the retiring population should be calibrated by the realisation that governments do not generate value and hence money spent now is taken from current tax contributions, and this every-increasing outflow can only be sustained by a corresponding every-increasing tax base. Good luck finding an instance of the latter that grows at a rate comparable to the former.


Terrible arguments about gun ownership

Texas-based English journo Alex Hannaford wrote an article for Salon about concealed carry in the USA where he went so far as to take a 1-day concealed-carry course and carry concealed where he lives in Texas:

To hold a Concealed Handgun License (CHL) in Texas, you must have a state ID, be at least 21, and not have committed any felonies or be addicted to drugs. The ten-hour class covers gun safety, the use of force and dispute resolution. There's also a shooting test at the range; to pass, you must fire off 50 rounds and score 170 points out of a possible 250.
This actually seems pretty stringent to me; during 10 hours of instruction, especially in covering issues like dispute resolution, it should become clear to the course instructors whether any of their students show signs of being unstable. Of course it won't catch everyone, but it does seem to be a good-faith attempt to ensure that only stable people with reasonable gun proficiency get to carry-concealed legally.

Hannaford summarises his experience in an eye-poppingly poorly argued article in the Guardian, taking the traditional Guardian view of the NRA membership as a pack of xenophobic paranoid loons. This much was not a surprise. What was a surprise was how badly thought-out were his comments about the benefits of guns:

Where I live in Austin, there are about 82 home invasions a year – in a city of 820,000 people. You're far more likely to be injured by your own gun than to need one to use against somebody breaking in at night.
Hmm, yes. I wonder why home invasions (breaking into a house with violent intent against the occupants) are so rare in a city where everyone and his dog have a gun? Compare with Oakland, California which has about half the population of Austin but much more restrictive firearms ownership laws, and an endemic of home invasions - many of them by armed ne'er-do-wells.

What really takes the cake is when he addresses the concern of Americans about government tyranny:

The research I did for those stories also reinforced my belief that it's a very vocal minority in America whose affection for the right to bear arms isn't anything to do with hunting or target shooting. It's about arming themselves to the teeth so they can rise up against an oppressive government should the need arise. Because, you know, that kind of thing happens a lot in America. And they're going to be really effective against the most powerful military force in the world, if the need should ever arise.
Well, if I were a tyrannical US Government, I'd put Texas a square last on my list of states to take over. It has 25 million people and, quite probably, more than one gun per person. Even if you assume that gun ownership is concentrated, you're still looking at 5 million or more heavily armed and motivated citizens who know well the expansive lands of their state. Contrast this with a total of 1.4m active and 0.8m reserve personnel in the entire US Armed Forces and note that the actual gun-toting soldiery won't be even half of that. Unless you planned on levelling the entire state with high explosive, you'd be nuts to try to take on Texas. Britain, by contrast, should be a walk-over.

Certainly, the US Government has not yet tried to oppress the population. But then, given the above, how far would it get? And if you want precedent for a native population of North America being overrun and essentially wiped-out by better-armed Government forces, you might want to talk to the remaining Native Americans, such as the Sioux tribes.


Confessions of a tax dodger

Over at Patently Rubbish, Patently posts a pie chart (boo, hiss, etc.) of where his business's 1st year income went, split between himself (business owner), staff (salaries) and Government (taxes, VAT, staff PAYE + NI etc.). Go take a look.

The only conclusion to draw is that Patently is clearly flagrantly avoiding paying his fair share of tax, no matter how closely to the letter of the law he adheres, and should immediately voluntarily pay at least another 5% of income. I hope to find the Tax Justice Network on his case forthwith.


Living your life the tax-avoidance-free way

In the wake of the shrill pronouncements by Mags Hodges on Google UK's tax affairs, the Guardian has a delicious article on how to stop using Google in your everyday life, in order to feel virtuous. It turns out that it's not entirely straight forward, though:

This [social media] is slightly more tricky, from an ethics and tax standpoint, than it seems. Twitter and Facebook both seem to be setting up the same sort of revenue-routing through Ireland that has UK taxation experts fuming.
I think real UK taxation experts are working with UK companies to help them minimise tax paid in the UK, just like the US based firms mentioned in the article. I suspect the article's author is talking about populist clowns like the Tax Justice Network whose starting point is that however much tax companies pay, it can never be enough.

This is the real danger, incidentally. Once we start talking about "fair shares" of tax owed we quickly move from the legal obligations of companies which can be clearly defined and tested in court, and go to a subjective measure which companies can never be sure that they are meeting to the satisfaction of those in power. Politicians will always take more tax from anyone if they think they can get away with it - money is power, and politics is always about power. They may even spend some of that money wisely. But if a company cannot know in advance how much tax will be due, how can it plan its financial affairs? A country becomes a shake-down artist, randomly hitting up companies for more money on a whim. If you want to know how this ends up, look at Russia.

I had a look at the Google FY 2012 results. On $10.7bn of operating income they paid a net $1.5bn in tax, which is about a 14% tax rate (an 18% effective tax rate for Q4) - not super-high, but pretty reasonable. That was more than double what tax they paid last year, on $9.7bn of operating income. Apple, for comparison, on operating income of $55bn made provision for $14bn of tax which is a tax rate around 25%. I assume this difference is primarily due to Apple making and selling a lot more physical things than Google, but I'm not a tax expert. Apple takes the same kind of approach that Google, Facebook et al do - the Apple operating presence in Eire is substantial, and I'm sure it's not just because they like the weather there.

Just checking here - is this the same Guardian Media Group who apparently avoid millions in tax through a Luxembourg-based company? Oh, sweet irony.