In 2013, Apple CEO Tim Cook stood in front of a US Senate committee and said, “We pay all the taxes we owe—every single dollar. We not only comply with the laws, but we comply with the spirit of the laws. We don’t depend on tax gimmicks.” Sure, Tim. Sure.
But whether it’s unpatriotic, disingenuous, or fair is irrelevant. The tax strategies Apple uses—primarily shifting income to Ireland—are legal. And as CEO of a public company, Tim Cook has a duty to Apple shareholders, not the US Treasury. So if he can legally save his shareholders money, he has a responsibility to do that.
Judge Learned Hand even notes in the landmark case Helvering v. Gregory that, “Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.”
Now, ironically, this case created the legal doctrine known as “substance over form,” which means that you cannot just file the right paperwork to make a transaction legitimate if the underlying objective is simply tax avoidance. But so far, Apple’s strategies have held up.
Ultimately, Congress included provisions within the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that reduce the effectiveness of such strategies (although their success is debatable). As a result, Apple now has the coveted problem of repatriating over $250 billion in cash overseas.