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Apple ruling - the political economy of tax avoidance

The ruling by the European Commission (EC) - that Ireland has facilitated Apple Inc in avoiding billions of euros in taxes on its EU based operations - serves to highlight the nature of the Irish state and its role in the global economic and political system.
This was illustrated most clearly in the reaction of the Irish political class.  In this their identification with the US corporation was total.  Statements from finance minister Michael Noonan and Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook - denying any special tax arrangement was in place or that any taxes were owed - could almost have been delivered by either.  Though what did   particularity jar was the self-righteous tone adopted by the politicians who took offence over the Irish state being compared to a tax haven while at the same time reassuring US corporations that such practices would continue. 
Of course the disparity between what is said and what is done has long been a feature of public life in  Ireland.  In this case the words of Irish politicians are thrown into sharp relief by the report of the three-year long investigation that accompanied the EC ruling which detailed the workings of the Apple scheme.
Apple Inc
The EC report found that a number of tax rulings had enabled Apple to substantially lower the amount of tax it paid.  While the headline rate of corporate tax in Ireland is 12.5% the company had paid just 1% on its European profits in 2003, and this had diminished further to about 0.005 percent by 2014.  Over that entire period, Apple paid just €50 million in tax.  The EC calculated that Ireland had granted undue tax benefits of up to €13 billion to Apple. 
Apple Inc operated this tax avoidance scheme using two of its Irish registered subsidiaries - Apple Sales International (ASI) and Apple Operations Europe - which hold the intellectual property to Apple  products and brands outside of North and South America.  ASI is responsible for buying Apple  products from equipment manufacturers around the world and selling these products in Europe.  The sales operation are set up in such a way that customers are contractually buying not from the retailers that      actually sold the product but from the Ireland based ASI.  In this way Apple recorded all sales, and the profits stemming from these sales, directly in Ireland.
When these profits got to Apple’s subsidiaries in  Ireland they were then transferred to a “head office” within these companies where they remained untaxed. These "head offices" were not based in any country and did not have any employees or own premises.  Under a “cost sharing” agreement direct payments were also made to Apple Inc in the US.  It is claimed that such payments are for research and development conducted in the US on behalf of the Irish companies.  These payments, which ran to billions of dollars, were deducted from the profits  recorded in Ireland.  The consequence of all this is that Apple paid virtually no tax in Europe.
On paper Apple has cash or near equivalents of $206bn on its balance sheet and about $181bn was apparently held overseas — mainly in Ireland.     However, in reality there is no Irish money hoard.  The “head offices” of the Irish shell companies are a compete fiction and the money attached to them is either transferred to banks in the US or used to buy US Treasury bonds.   
Of course Apple is not just an isolated case but part of broader strategy of attracting of attracting foreign capital to Ireland.  Successive Irish governments have used the tool of low corporation tax as a means of attracting investment.  And while this policy had been in place since the late 1950’s it reached its height  during the period of the Celtic Tiger in the 80’s and 90’s.  However, the nature of capital investment has changed in more recent years – moving away from production towards financial speculation and tax avoidance.  This later form of investment accelerated rapidly in the 2000’s and is now dominant.  
Over recent decades about 31 publicly US listed companies have changed their tax domiciles with about half of them becoming "Irish."  Today Ireland hosts over half of the world’s top 50 banks and half of the top 20 insurance companies. Fifteen of the 20 “Irish” companies on the listed Nasdaq stockmarket are American.  In 2013 Ireland hosted nearly 14,000 funds (6,000 of these were Irish-domiciled)  administering an estimated €3.7 trillion— that was up from $840 billion a decade earlier.  
The watershed year for this trend was 1999 when the Irish government introduced an exemption for US companies that allowed them to use Irish offshore companies without having to pay tax in Ireland.  The effect of this was dramatic.  Over the next decade profits of Irish affiliates of US companies doubled from $13.4bn to $26.8bn as they became the most profitable in the world.  In 2010, the profits per employee at US-owned companies in Ireland were at $970,000 while the corporate tax paid in Ireland was about $25,000 (€19,000).  
One of the companies to take advantage of Irish tax arrangements was Microsoft. In this tax avoidance scheme one its Irish subsidiaries - Round Island One Limited – came to control more than $16bn in  Microsoft assets.  Virtually unknown in Ireland, on paper it quickly became one of the country's biggest companies, with gross profits of nearly $9bn in 2004.  Through another Irish shell firm, Flat Island Co., Round Island licensed rights to Microsoft software throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa.  By routing license sales through Ireland and Round  Island Microsoft paid a total of just under $17m in taxes to about 20 other states that represented more than 300m people.  This is the tax avoidance model that became known as the “Double Irish”. 
Another “Double Irish” scheme saw an Irish subsidiary of Facebook shift profits of €1.75 billion in 2012 to another subsidiary in the Cayman Islands and post a pre-tax loss of €626,000 instead. Google dodged $2 billion a year in taxes using a “Double Irish” scheme via the Netherlands and Bermuda.  King Digital Entertainment Plc, the maker of the popular Candy Crush Saga smartphone game, which has a market valuation of $5bn, is also registered to an Irish holding company.  Fake "Irish" companies have a total payroll of over 600,000 which is more than three times the head count of all foreign-owned exporting firms in Ireland.  Medtronic, together with Eaton Corporation, which became Irish in 2012,    together employ 180,000 while Accenture, the US consultancy, which changed its tax domicile from Bermuda in 2009 to Ireland - - to avoid the tax haven tag -- has a global payroll of 275,000.
For a long time the issue of  corporate tax avoidance was a taboo subject in Ireland.  It really only came to public attention following a US senate investigation into Apple’s tax affairs in 2013.  Throughout this period – as they still do today - political leaders and officials maintain the deception that the Irish state does not facilitate tax avoidance.  However, their actions have always been far from their words.  In 2008, the then finance minister Brian Cowan told Daily Telegraph that Ireland would not encourage "brass plate" operations, and that he wanted to see "real substance in investment”.  Yet the same edition of the newspaper reported that the IDA was actively pitching deals to UK companies to switch their tax domiciles to Ireland. 
In 2013, Labour’s Brendan Howlin made his now  infamous statement that: “The Irish tax rate on corporate business is very clear - - it’s 12.5% - - we don’t have any brass plate companies like others do have. The tax rate in Ireland is what it says on the tin.”  Yet just two years earlier Arthur Cox, Ireland's biggest corporate law firm, the main external adviser to the Department of Finance during the financial  crisis, produced a briefing paper that claimed that the effective corporation tax rate could “be reduced to as low as 2.5% for Irish companies”. 
Distorted economy
A consequence of a strategy so dependent on tax avoidance activities is a grossly distorted economy.  The disparity between reported economic output and actual production in Ireland has become so great that official statistics are now the subject of ridicule, with the latest batch of data being dubbed as “Leprechaun economics” by the economist Paul Krugman. According to these figures the Ireland’s GDP “grew” by a staggering 26.3% in 2015; exports rose 34% per while investment was up 27 per cent. In this year alone Ireland’s stock of productive assets increased by €300 billion. 
Based on these figures the average worker’s annual income would have reached €130,000.  Of course it hadn’t for these figures in no way reflected what was going on in the Irish economy.  What is growing is not the economy but the amount of profits from   multinationals that are being transferred through Ireland for no other purpose than tax avoidance.   Ministers brag about rising exports as an indication of success but €45bn or almost half of service exports derive from tax avoidance schemes.  So in 2013, Google, Microsoft and Facebook alone, accounted for €35.5bn or 39% of Ireland's services exports.  The same goes for manufactured exports, with “contract manufacturing” - i.e. products produced outside of Ireland - accounting for the bulk of exports in this category.  A startling example is Dell Products  Ireland, which despite closing its operations in  Limerick in 2009, remains one of Ireland's biggest exporters and manufacturers by booking the output of its Polish plant here.
To justify this strategy successive Irish governments have claimed that there is a benefit to the Irish  people.  This is not true.  We are told that the  economy is recovering – and on the latest figures it is booming – but it is bypassing the vast majority of the population.  The economy outside of the multinational sector is struggling while conditions for workers continue to stagnate.  It is also the case that size of the proceeds from multinational activity that goes to Irish people in the form of wages and the revenue raised through corporation tax is small - just a fraction of what goes to the shareholders of these companies. 
On some social indicators - such as housing – the situation is deteriorating.  Much is this is a result of the policies of austerity that have been ongoing since the financial crash - itself another example of a distorted economy that came in the form of a credit fuelled property boom followed by a bust and a bank bailout.   Moreover, the so called recovery is dependent on those policies continuing.  The sacrifices made by workers during the period of crisis – and which many believed were temporary – are now being made permanent. 
On a broader level the Apple ruling and the reaction to it is another illustration of the growing tensions between different political and economic blocs in the world.  The dispute over where Apple should pay its tax is a struggle between the US and the EU over which states have the right to lay claim on that revenue.  It is also related to the competition between corporations and the efforts by European owned companies to end the advantages gained by their US rivals through tax avoidance.  Indeed, the EC ruling on Apple was on the basis of competition law.    Commentators who dismiss this as just a cover for attacking Ireland’s tax system ignore the importance of competition as a dynamic within capitalism.  In the current era this competition is not just between individual capitalists or corporations or even capitalist states but between capitalist blocs that  encompass multiple states.  We see this in the  tensions and conflicts that have arisen in the various trade negotiations that are ongoing between North America, Europe and Asia. 
This competition is also at work on a military level.  This is evidenced in the coup in Ukraine and the    attempt at regime change in Syria and most clearly and directly in the build up of US forces on the  borders of Russia and off the coast of China.  This is causing tension not just with those states that that are being targeted by the US but also between the US and its allies (particularly in Europe) who would be most affected by conflict in these regions.  In this field also the Irish state plays the role of facilitator for  imperialism.   As with its official rejection of tax avoidance its constitutional adherence to neutrality is no more that words that have been disproved by the sight of US military personnel and equipment transiting through Shannon airport. 
Left response 
Ireland is a country that is completely dominated by imperialism.  This is the fundamental fact that is exposed by the EC investigation of Apple’s tax arrangements.  Unfortunately this is ignored by many on the socialist left who claim to represent an  opposition.  For the most part their response has been to draw up a wish list of public services the potential €13bn windfall could be spent on.  In reality the windfall is unlikely to arrive and even it did an Irish government would be unlikely to spend it improving the health service or reducing homelessness.  
The biggest weakness in these types of argument is that they implicitly accept the role that the Irish state is playing in the world - that is all right for Ireland to facilitate tax avoidance by US corporations as long as Irish workers get a slice of the action.  These are reformist arguments that really aren’t so far from removed from those of the  government.  They are also nationalistic in their assumption that Irish workers should have first claim on any recovered tax revenue.  But why would their claim be any greater than that of workers in China where Apple products are  manufactured or workers in other European sates where the products are sold?  It could be be argued that workers in Ireland - as citizens of the state that facilitated tax avoidance - have no legitimate claim at all.  

The outworking of these reformist arguments can only lead to a scenario in which workers of different nations are encouraged to identify with their own state as they are pitted against one another.  That the socialist left should deploy them shows the degree to which they have accommodated themselves to the dominant ideologies in Irish society - particularly that of social partnership.  Within the confines to this framework the foundations of capitalist rule in Ireland - imperialist domination and the co-option of the trade union movement - are ignored and therefore go unchallenged.
The coming years are likely to  witness great  upheaval as capitalism and bourgeois politics   continue to decay.  We have already seen the precursors of this with the Brexit vote and the rise of nationalism and racism across Europe and in the US.  Ireland will not escape any of this, and given its precarious position of balancing between the EU and US, will likely be one of the states where the consequences are felt most  severely. 
In this scenario Irish workers could see their conditions deteriorate even further.   This is not inevitable but for a different scenario to unfold the working class will have to renew itself in terms of politics and organisation.  The current prevailing ideas that workers share a common interest with the capitalist class or that their well being is bound up with that of US corporations such as Apple have to be overturned.  


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