Apple's new product: Money

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Commentary:

(MoneyWatch) Apple makes lovely products; that doesn't make it a lovely company. While consumers swoon over new high-tech gadgets, being a great global citizen is not, and never has been, the top priority at this company. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its recent bond issue.

Shareholders are delighted to be paid a dividend at long last, but where does that money come from? It could come from the company's cash mountain, but in fact the whole process masks a nifty tax dodge: Of the $145 billion that Apple has accumulated, fully $100 billion lies offshore. Repatriating that money into the U.S. to reward shareholders would generate a hefty tax bill. In order to reward its patient investors, therefore, Apple has chosen to take on debt and avoid the tax it owes to the country in which it operates.

To be fair, Apple isn't the only company to indulge in these tax-avoiding machinations. Google ("Don't Be Evil") does exactly the same thing. And, yes, it's all perfectly legal. But as corporate citizenship goes, it stinks.

Tech companies are always complaining that they can't get the skilled graduates they want. It apparently doesn't occur to them that education is funded or subsidized by taxes. The air and road traffic systems on which their businesses depend? Yes, they get funded or subsidized by taxes too. These companies may like to imagine that they're so rich they don't need the state, but the truth is that, like all of us, it depends on what the state provides. I can't see them taking over responsibilities like those anytime soon.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to acknowledge that this post was written on a MacBook and that I use and enjoy Apple products. I buy them because they're well made and durable. But if (or when) I can say the same of other companies that do pay their tax, I'm out of Appleland. I still cherish the old-fashioned idea that everyone should pay their way. Looking good and being good are two quite different things, and clearly Apple finds one a lot more intuitive than the other.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.