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Are Cash Cows Killing America?

The other night I watched an all-too-brief but still worthwhile CNBC interview with Starbucks (SBUX) Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz.

Schultz discussed the decision to keep more of the company's business in the United States, focusing on Starbucks' Create Jobs for USA Fund. For instance, Starbucks contracted with a tiny ceramics company in East Liverpool, Ohio, to make mugs for the project. Schultz also noted that Starbucks built a factory in Augusta, Ga., forgoing considerable cost savings had the company placed it offshore. (He didn't mention if he selected Augusta so he could kill two birds with one stone each April -- visit the factory, watch some golf.)

These two efforts will create or preserve roughly 150 jobs. That's not a big number, but Schultz sounded genuine in his commitment to look for other opportunities. Several things he said struck me.

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Because he doesn't expect Washington to get anything done between now and the presidential election, Schultz thinks corporate America has a responsibility to help fuel domestic growth. He talked about striking "a balance between profitability and responsibility." He also said pretty much the same thing Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg relayed in his recent S-1 letter to investors:

These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits.

Schultz did not use the words "simply maximizing profits." While it would not have bothered me if he did, I just want to make that clear. He did, however, speak Zuckerberg's language.

Schultz contends that consumers want to spend money with companies that align with their values. He sees inaction in Washington. He sees a sluggish economy. He sees virtually dead places like East Liverpool. And, no doubt, he sees an opportunity. So he goes after it.

If you read Schultz's book about how he and his team brought Starbucks back from the brink, you'll realize that's what he has always done. Temper your cynicism here. I really do not see this as a phony show of goodwill. Ultimately, proof lays in how far Starbucks is willing to take things.

Can Apple Do More?

So Starbucks sacrifices a little bit on the bottom line (maybe) and spends some cash in an attempt to help boost domestic production. Clearly, it cannot incite meaningful change on its own. It's a bit like Bill Gates giving away half of his fortune. Nice gesture, but there's no sweeping impact until you enlist others to do the same. Even then, things still look relatively bleak.

Starbucks charts this course with a manageable half a billion dollars in debt and about $2.2 billion in cash. It did about $12.5 billion in sales over the last year. Respectable. It could do more (not just in sales, but for the country). Hopefully, it will.

Meantime, at Apple (AAPL), CEO Tim Cook is in the process of making the company his own. By all accounts, he's doing a wonderful job. He eats lunch with dime-a-dozen employees. He shows up unexpectedly at executive presentations and even takes impromptu investor questions. Cook has instituted a charitable giving program whereby Apple matches employee donations. Most notably, he traveled to China not only to massage public officials' egos for purely business reasons, but to make it known that Apple leads the charge with regards to working conditions in the country.

This comes concurrent with ongoing debates over what Apple should do with its growing pile of cash (and securities). The usually reliable Andy Zaky tells Fortune that he expects the company's reserves to increase from $110 billion to $205 billion by September 2013. Those numbers are truly mind-boggling.

Cook gave in to pressure to return capital to shareholders via a dividend and buyback. That gesture will cost the company a little more than $10 billion a year but, relatively speaking, they'll miss the cash like you do your daily Starbucks money. In fact, given the rate at which Apple generates cash flow, they will likely not even know it's gone.

As Apple continues to rake it in, it reportedly ducks federal and California state taxes. It does so legally. I have no problem with what Apple does in this regard. I do, however, take exception with what it does not do.

In the spirit of not merely striking "a balance between profitability and responsibility," but finding some rational middle ground between corporate excess and the public good, I think others should as well.

Headquartered in Cupertino, Calif., Apple resides in a state with a $15.7 billion budget deficit. The company could do more for the state with the swipe of its debit card. Let's face it, what's good for California is good for America. And, like the dividend and buyback, it would have absolutely no impact on Apple's business.

Assuming this sounds radical to you, it only does because nobody has brought it up before, as far as I know. Plus, it's an admittedly extreme departure from the way business participates in politics. When you stop and think about it, lobbying and greasing the palms of select political campaigns is more absurd than the thought of a company more than capable of true disruption taking unprecedented steps to disrupt the shady intersection between business and politics. While the latter will not necessarily remedy the former, it could, for once, trigger meaningful change.

All of this said, I do not expect (or want) Apple to write the state of California a blank check. That's throwing good money after bad.

When I lived in the city of Los Angeles, I refused to vote "yes" to give money to the public school system. Why? LAUSD would mismanage it as has every other dime, public or private, it has gotten its hands on. I am more than happy, however, to support select charter schools as well as the local school district in Santa Monica. These entities put the money to work effectively. In this regard, I would anticipate Apple going several steps farther.

If you can achieve a loose consensus on anything politically natured, it might be that politicians need to run government more like great CEOs run businesses. It should never be a choice between generating revenue and cutting expenses; you make aggressive moves to do both, particularly once things get to the point they're at in California and elsewhere.

In exchange for a portion of its surplus, Apple should command not only a seat at the table, but an authoritative hand in the process. The money comes with conditions. If they're not met, politicians in Sacramento will go down as messing up the biggest opportunity a government has ever seen.

Just as Gates called on his fellow billionaires to become true philanthropists, Apple should call on its fellow cash cows -- everybody from Microsoft (MSFT) to Google (GOOG) to Exxon Mobil (XOM). That would be cooperation like Washington has never seen.

After all, getting California's issues taken care of will, over the long haul, only benefit Apple and its corporate brothers and sisters from across the state. A healthy California portends a healthy United States of America.

While I do not necessarily buy in 100% to Bruce Springsteen's notion that "nobody wins unless everybody wins," I have a hard time watching people suffer, a perpetually weak economy and government gridlock while Apple sits on money it and its shareholders truly do not need.

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