Does a "Dutch Sandwich" Make Google Evil?

It depends on what state you're in and the age of the farm animal.

Seriously, though, after reading this article about Google's evasion of $3.1 billion in tax obligations through legal loopholes, I got into a Twitter argument with Townhall.com's Kevin Glass about whether this move is a violation of Google's famed "Don't be evil" mantra. Glass saw some virtue in Google's evasion, whereas I predictably thought Google should pay its fair tax burden.

"Don't be evil," as far as informal company standards go, is supposed to hold Google to a higher standard than your average corporation. It's about "doing the right thing more generally -- following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect." Since I expect, if only to avoid legal uncertainty, most corporations at least try to follow the standard of "don't be illegal," you'd think DBE would imply a higher standard than even that.

This year, Google paid an tax rate of 2.4 percent. It did so not just by taking advantage of tax breaks available to corporations for research and development, depreciation and the like, but also by more dubious techniques known as the "Double Irish" and the "Dutch Sandwich" -- “the sandwich leaves no tax behind to taste." These tactics involve shuttling earnings through various foreign subsidiaries with no business purpose other than tax evasion.

So is this action evil? If Google's definition of not being evil is 'doing more than the average corporation to support the public interest,' then sure it is. It's one thing to take advantage of legitimate tax law, but exploiting these loopholes for the sole purpose of paying less tax violates the spirit of the law, if not the letter. That would be fine if Google was content as a typical business, relentlessly pursuing profit with no thought to the public interest. They simply shouldn't pretend they're somehow better than the Exxons and Goldman Sachs of the world.

Glass, meanwhile, wondered if you could apply the conventional moral meaning of "evil" to paying one's taxes. While the government does do things with that money that could be aptly described as evil, that doesn't make non-payment a virtue. Taxes are part of our social contract with the state and underpin democracy; so long as policy is a product of a representative government, paying your fair share is a civil obligation, and thus virtuous. Ask Plato: "When there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income."

-- Tim Fernholz

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