Thursday, April 21, 2011

SpongeBob's Teachings on Corporate Lies

I am a lousy church school teacher. Having regarded my formative years as an Episcopalian as more of a social event than anything else - some of my best school friends attended the same church, so most of the praying that went on in class was over tests and who would ask who out for Senior Ball. I never read the Bible or anything Jesus-y like that.

Still, it taught me the benefit of taking part of a faith community, and I definitely buy into the whole "love thy neighbor" message. So when the call went out for church school teachers for the 4th,5th, and 6th graders at church recently, I signed on, breathing a sigh of relief when an email told me that our entire curriculum would be based on SpongeBob Square Pants.

It's clever, really. Our church school leader selects a Sponge Bob episode for the kids to watch, and develops with questions that tie it back to key teachings - "How might SpongeBob have been a better neighbor to Squidward? What does Jesus say about the way we treat our neighbors?" type of thing. Lively discussions ensue, often with sidebars on farting and bodily fluids. It's all good - the kids want to come back.

Recently, though, I got to class and the DvD for the week was missing. Faced with a roomful of staring kids who were moments away from stampeding back to Coffee Hour,  I said "I know! We'll pop in a random episode and you'll tell me what the spiritual message is!" In the episode, SpongeBob drew a little squiggle with a magic pencil, which quickly became a Zombie  2-dimensional SpongeBob wreaking havoc all over Bikini Bottom. Horrified at what he's wrought, it become SpongeBob's job to capture and erase the squiggle before it does any permanent damage.

All of which is a very, very long way to say that even SpongeBob, and the kids in my class, know that a lie can careen out of the liar's control and do terrible collateral damage.  Which is why I'm so pissed off to read columnist Kathleen Pender's piece in the San Francisco Chronicle today about how, exactly, U.S. corporations like GE and Cisco avoid paying a penny of tax to the federal government, even when they're raking in billions of dollars in profits. It involves a shell game of hiding profits offshore, using techniques like "the double Irish" and "the Dutch sandwich" (mmm, lunch.)

 In 2004, the government gave major corporations a one-time tax holiday to repatriate their foreign profits at an effective tax rate of 5.25% (which ended up being closer to 3.7% after foreign tax credits.) The idea was that these cut-rate foreign profits would be used by the companies to boost investments in R&D and training in the US and create jobs. But a study from National Bureau of Economic Research found that not only did that NOT happen, but that "a $1 increase in repatriations was associated with an increase of almost $1 in payouts to shareholders." Furthermore, as Pender reports, "A report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said that companies including Hewlett-Packard, Pfizer, Ford, Merck and Honeywell announced large layoffs shortly after repatriating funds."

In short, these corporations are lying about their obligations, and getting away with it. Love they neighbor (and pay your fair share) be damned.

Guess what? My biggest client is a UK-based publishing company that pays me in British pounds. As such, they are not required to file a W-9 for me; it's up to me alone to report that income to the US government and pay taxes on it. 

It would be easy for me to not do that, and personally lucrative. Instead I track every penny of those payments, report them to the government, and pay taxes on them. You know why? Because I find it exhausting to even contemplate the web of self-delusion it would take to convince myself that doing the wrong thing is right.* I know these corporations may seem faceless, but there are actual human beings running them. 

How they sleep at night is a Holy Mystery, perhaps even beyond SpongeBob's ken.

*Yes, I recently wrote about the white lies I tell my kids. And now they know it's not the cleaning man's fault their things are missing, and I'm paying big time.

1 comment:

  1. Nancy
    I love the use of Sponge Bob as a character for moral teaching. Definitely more suitable than the goings on of Sodom and Gamora (sp?) or the misery of Job!
    By the way, those corporate "people" don't sleep well at night, at least not without large volumes of alcohol and other pharmaceuticals. They get paid very well to compensate them for the misery they cause and years taken off their life from having to carry such a burden.
    Glad you were inspired to blog today.
    Dan Soffer


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