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We need business leaders with some sense of shame

October 30, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Corporate America needs to step up and pay its fair share, instead of using shareholder value as an excuse to dodge taxes.

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FORTUNE -- At first glance, you would think that the CEOs of taxophobic U.S. corporations and our less-than-stellar leaders in Washington have nothing in common. But you'd be wrong. What they share is a lack of shame and an excess of narrow thinking.

The similarity between C-suite tax avoiders and Washington reality avoiders struck me as I watched the debt-ceiling and government-shutdown debacle unfold. Listening to politicians say "This is what voters in my district want" reminded me of watching Apple (AAPL) chief executive Tim Cook invoke "shareholder value" during his May testimony at a Senate hearing that focused on the extraordinary games that Apple plays to avoid paying U.S. taxes on what anyone other than a tax lawyer would consider U.S. income. Not only was Cook not visibly embarrassed, but he actually seemed proud of what the company was doing.

Pols and CEOs both justify their actions by citing obligations to their narrow constituencies. The fact that all Americans, conservative and liberal alike, would realize long-term benefits from having a functional government with predictable finances? The fact that shareholders would ultimately realize serious value from an increase in our nation's well-being if bigtime corporate tax avoiders decided they had an obligation to help pay for public education and infrastructure? Well, that's when people trot out the John Maynard Keynes line, "In the long run, we are all dead."

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Look, it's easy to understand why companies (perfectly legally) avoid taxes. Lower taxes mean higher profits, which presumably translate into higher stock prices. However, going to extraordinary lengths to avoid taxes helps undermine companies' long-term interests by hurting society and by giving average people yet another reason to detest Big Business.

It's also easy to understand why politicians would rather pander to their constituents than act in the national interest. It's safer. If you're a Tea Party type who compromises or a liberal who tells Social Security recipients that the program in its current form is unsustainable, you risk losing your job.

I have a belief, possibly naive, that when you're entrusted with corporate or political leadership, you're supposed to lead rather than stick your finger in the air, divine the prevailing wind, and follow it. But maybe that's just me.

However, I actually see a few glimmers of hope. Some of the fanatics who caused the government shutdown and fomented the debt-ceiling crisis are catching heat for having damaged conservatives' long-term interests. Which, in fact, they did. And I've even seen a company do the right thing because it was embarrassed. Not in the U.S., but in England, where an uproar erupted last year after a superb series by Reuters (see bottom of page) about the tax-avoidance games played by Starbucks (SBUX), which, Reuters reported, told shareholders it was making big profits in England but filed U.K. tax returns showing losses. My favorite part was Starbucks U.K. buying coffee beans from a Swiss affiliate that benefited from an agricultural tax break.

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As a result of the blowback, Starbucks paid £10 million (about $16 million) of U.K. taxes voluntarily. Hello? What's going on? I asked Starbucks why it was voluntarily paying taxes. The answer, from Corey duBrowa, Starbucks' senior vice president for global communications: "We believe that acting responsibly makes good business sense, and the payment of corporate tax in the U.K. is a good example of this ethos in action."

Alas, two other U.S. companies harpooned by Reuters -- Google (GOOG) and Amazon (AMZN) -- felt no obligation to do anything. But Starbucks' deciding that it's good business to pay taxes is really encouraging. So is the intra-conservative debate between pragmatists and fanatics. Liberals may be next. If we get lucky, shame and political compromise may yet become trendy.

Reuters' 2012 special report

How Starbucks avoids UK taxes
Amazon's billion-dollar tax shield
Starbucks's European tax bill disappears down $100 million hole
How the UK tax authority got cozy with big business
EBay's double tax base prompts calls for investigation

Reuters' coverage of Google's tax strategy this year

How Google UK clouds its tax liabilities
How big tech stays offline on tax
Google pays $55 million tax in Britain on 2012 sales of $5 bln

This story is from the November 18, 2013 issue of Fortune

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About This Author
Allan Sloan
Allan Sloan
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Allan Sloan, who has been writing about business for more than 40 years, joined Fortune in July of 2007. Before that, he was the Wall Street editor for Newsweek for 12 years. His work also appears in The Washington Post. Allan is a seven-time winner of the Loeb Award, business journalism's highest honor, receiving awards in four different categories for five different employers. He is a graduate of Brooklyn College and has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He and his wife live in New Jersey. They have three grown children.

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