The Coming Corporate Crackdown

Apple is facing tough questions over its skill at avoiding taxes--and that's only the beginning

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4 Tech firms in particular will feel the heat. A year ago, when the investigation into Apple's tax avoidance got under way, I wrote of other Big Tech-vs.-government battles that were shaping up. One was the push to get Internet retailers like Amazon to pay local sales tax. (A bill to do just that passed the Senate.) Another was the FTC's antitrust investigations into Google (which ended without charges). Bottom line: when you have a lot of cash and can move much of it abroad easily, as the biggest tech companies do, everyone will start watching you more closely. As Steve Jobs once said, "It's more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy." But when you are the world's most valuable company, it's harder to play the rebel. The truth is that Big Tech is as corporate as it comes, and since Big Tech is also where most of the new growth and income creation in the U.S. are right now, there's little doubt that it will draw more and more attention from regulators, tax collectors and social activists.

How well the industry defends itself may depend on how many new jobs it can account for. As Cook stressed in his testimony, Apple is "an American company" that created or supports some 600,000 jobs in the U.S. And it's true that technology has historically created more jobs than it has destroyed. But the periods in which the creative destruction happens aren't pretty and tend to be characterized by high levels of inequality and social discontent. A number of academics, including folks at tech-friendly places like MIT and Stanford, believe we're in one of those periods. That's why it will be crucial for Big Tech to prove it's enriching the 99% as well as the 1%.

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