Sunday, September 7, 2014

Don't Boycott Burger King

For those who regularly follow online news outlets like the Huffington Post (as I do), you’ve probably seen something about how Burger King is buying Tim Hortons, making Burger King legally Canadian, and thus allowing it to dodge taxes in the US. Understandably, there’s a lot of outrage about that—some, including people I like, like economist Bruce Bartlett, have even called for a boycott. And at first, I was on board with that. There’s not too much doubt about the motive here—pure corporate greed. And, obviously, it is pretty bad if corporations can get out of paying their taxes but average Americans can’t. But, the more I thought about it, the less it seemed reasonable to try to force Burger King into paying its taxes.

For everyone who’s outraged by Burger King’s tax dodge, I understand how you feel, but ask yourself an important question: where would the tax money go? Into military aid for Israel, or aid for Egypt’s dictatorship, maybe? For developing expensive new weapons systems that help us fight the ongoing, bloody war in the Middle East? To subsidies for oil companies that help make sure we get involved in any conflict in any oil-rich country, no matter the cost to our security or the people of that country? To enforcing the fascistic War on Drugs that’s been going on for decades? The answer is yes, to all of those. That is what the US government would spend Burger King’s tax money on.

Now, of course, there are good things the government would spend it on, too—education, social welfare, developing greener energy—but, first off, that spending is pretty paltry compared to a lot of the things I just listed. But, more importantly, shouldn’t we draw a line in the sand somewhere when it comes what the government can fund and still deserve tax revenue? Let it put it this way—would you donate to a charity that happened to, on the side, buy guns and arm inner city gangs? No? Then why is our government deserving of taxpayer money when it funds the atrocities it does? In fact, given the choice between taking an easy step to avoid paying taxes or willingly paying them, it’s the second option that seems more morally questionable when you consider just what those taxes are used for.

Now, obviously, Burger King isn’t avoiding its taxes to make some bold political statement. It is, like I said, raw corporate greed. But how is that any different than normal? There are tons of companies that could pay their workers better, or charge their customers less, and stay in business, but choose not to because of corporate greed. Corporations are entities that are essentially designed to make a profit. And, really, if Burger King has decided to increase its profits by avoiding paying taxes to the US government, we should be happy they didn’t do something much worse, like cut their employees’ already-meager pay or charge more for their food, which is often bought by people who probably can’t afford a whole lot better. (That’s not to sound classist—I eat at Burger King, too, but you get the point.)

“But the money has to come from somewhere!” Yeah, sure. But why don’t we demand that that “somewhere” is from the Defense Department, or from corporate welfare, or from ending the War on Drugs? It’s not like there aren’t areas the government could afford to cut spending from. The several million dollars in taxes Burger King is avoiding will barely make a difference to the government, but even if it did, we know where to cut from. So why act like the government just has to go deeper in debt or raise taxes on everyone else? Sure, ideally the government should take those dollars going into military spending or imprisoning non-violent drug offenders and invest it elsewhere, so spending as a whole wouldn’t decrease—but when the government actually shows some sign it’s going to do that, that’s when it’s time to think about boycotting Burger King if it continues its tax avoidance.

Some points I want to be clear on: I’m not saying it’s good that Burger King has done this. Realistically, I think the impact won’t make much of a difference. And, yes, as long as the government is funding horrible things, it’s better if it gets the tax money to do so from rich corporations than from the middle class. I do support closing loopholes and creating taxes that prevent this sort of thing from happening. But my point is simply that, with our current government, paying taxes is not something that should be seen as praiseworthy. With an ideal government, it would be, but ours is not ideal. If I could easily avoid paying taxes to it without legal penalty, I’d do so in a heartbeat—not out of greed, but out of principle. If Burger King does the same, not out of principle but out of greed, I can’t condemn its action, just its greed—and its greed is not unique. Unless you want to boycott every greedy corporation (which is the vast majority of them), then boycotting Burger King is pointless. If there’s an organization to boycott, it’s the government—but good luck on that front.   

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