This is a story which seems to crop up every couple of years, and I never fail to be amazed at the wide range of frequently contradictory responses that it elicits on both sides of the political aisle. USA Today is out with yet another report on the number of large, profitable companies in the United States which wind up paying an effective tax rate of zero. (Yes… zero)

Despite widespread groans about the recent disclosure that Apple is finding ways to cut its federal tax bill, an analysis shows the computer giant is one of scores of corporations largely dodging the taxman.

A surprising number of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500, 57, have found ways to pay effective tax rates of zero, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from S&P Capital IQ.

The effective tax rate is a popular measure used by investors to compare how much companies pay in tax relative to profit.

The news comes months after after the Government Accountability Office released a report showing that companies in 2010 reported an average effective tax rate of 12.6%, well below the 35% federal corporate tax rate.

This is a topic which Ed and I have debated on these pages in years past, though it wasn’t that heated of an argument since we tend to agree on a number of relevant points. First of all, there is the question of whether or not some of these companies really pay no taxes. One of the first responses from the companies in question, frequently cited by conservative supporters, is that of course they pay taxes! And they provide documents proving they do. But what’s under discussion is the effective tax rate as measured against profits. If your profitable company sends in some tax payments, but later get refunds and adjustments equal or greater to the amount you paid in during final filing and revisions, you didn’t pay any taxes. It’s really that simple.

That makes some people pretty angry, but really it should make everyone angry… just not at the companies in question. They’re playing the game with the cards the government dealt them and they’re playing to win. The problem isn’t at Verizon – the top name on the list this year – but rather in Congress and in the massive, byzantine tax code.

One solution which I’ve suggested before could, I think, satisfy both the liberals who want to bleed “Big Fill In Industry Name Here” for some more cash as well as those who want to see a more fair, flat tax code which contributes some revenue while not squelching productivity. Let’s lower the corporate tax rate to 10% from its current levels, but essentially delete the rest of the tax code as it applies to corporations. Open your books at the end of the year. If you spent “X” dollars and you took in “Y” dollars, then you owe Uncle Sam 10% of the difference if Y is greater than X. No other deductions, sliding scales, devaluation tricks.. nothing.

For the aforementioned liberals, a plan like this has the effect of the tide going out and seeing who is or is not wearing a bathing suit. If you’re really paying a lot of taxes you’ll be happy to cut it down to 10% of your profits. If you’re using various dodges built into the system to effectively pay no taxes, you’ll oppose the plan. It’s pretty simple.

For conservatives, this takes a significant portion of the government boot off the throat of smaller to medium size businesses who are not fortunate enough to qualify for the big giveaways in the tax code. The ones paying the most are frequently those who aren’t big enough to afford the best lobbyists or the army of experts required to navigate their IRS paperwork every year. And on a related note, a lot of companies could probably save massive amounts of money up front by being able to do away with that army of accountants and tax attorneys. Who knows? Maybe they could even spend it on hiring a few more folks.

Here’s part of the list of S&P companies who fall into that category ranked by their total worth, just in case you’re interested.

Verizon: $146.4
MetLife: $53.9
Eaton: $32.7
Regeneron Pharmaceuticals: $29.6
Public Storage: $29.5
Ventas: $19.3
Avalonbay Communities: $17.4
Agilent Technologies: $16.9
Vornado Realty Trust: $16.8
Boston Properites: $16.7
Seagate Technology: $15.9
Broadcom: $15.7
News Corp.: $9.8

Make what you will of the breakdown by industry, keeping in mind that these are limited to S&P listed entities.