It would be reductive to say that Apple sells “Cool.” I mean, yes, they sell Cool, but their brand appeal is at once more specific and more expansive than that word implies. On the fly, I’d say that this particular multinational profit-generating venture offers its customers a hygienic, techno-progressive, fundamentally meliorist view of history, one that embodies some of the most infuriating, and alluring, traits of Western cosmopolitanism. Granted, Apple’s products are pretty slick; my iPhone is a couple years old, but it is still a cool machine, and if I had the money, I would probably spring for a new iPod to help make my jogging regimen less painful. Further, it’s not like anyone makes you buy Apple’s stuff or forces you to worship St. Jobs if you do.
But whenever I check basketball scores on my phone I feel like a dupe. Because even if you aren’t the kind of dork who gets excited by the idea of visiting the Apple store or considers Technology (a term so broad it doesn’t mean anything) a globalist cure-all, you, Apple consumer, are still at least partially complicit in a worldview that blends narcissistic consumerism (there will always be newer, sleeker, cooler apps and devices to run them on), bourgeois sentimentality (e.g., that unbearably twee commercial where the rich child sings to her telegenic gramps), and smug Silicon Valley tech-worship (one observer calls it Solutionism), a worldview that is backed by a very real corporate behemoth with very real economic and political clout.
Given this institutional reality, it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Apple has been assiduously hiding billions and billions of dollars of profit from the US government and, thus, from American society. You know, all of us who drive on roads, eat food, attend school, and visit doctors, whether or not we own MacBooks.
While this present news is galling, the core problem isn’t Apple. Maximizing profits is what corporations do; it is the only thing they exist to do, even if the CEO votes for Obama or gives money to African orphans while extolling the benefits of local organic farming. And thanks to America’s insane tax code and the Gordian knot of international finance regulations, one of the best ways to maximize profits is to . . . follow the laws. As the silver-haired plutocrat at the company’s helm has testily reminded everybody who asks, Apple didn’t violate any rules, at least not the kind that have legal implications if broken.
Letter of the law aside, the situation remains appalling, because when corporations slither away from the taxes that basic economic and moral principles (but not, again, laws) suggest they are obligated to contribute, the rest of us, the people who pay for the roads along which Apple ships its products and the schools that educate many of its engineers, have to pony up the difference. From the New Yorker, here’s John Cassidy:
Partly as a result of their evasive tactics, big businesses now shoulder a lot less of the tax burden than they used to do. In the years after the Second World War, the corporate income tax accounted for about a third of over-all tax revenues. Today, its share is less than nine per cent. Who has made up the difference? Who do you think? Sixty years ago, individual and payroll taxes accounted for about half of over-all tax revenues; today, they account for more than eighty per cent.
No wonder our physical infrastructure is crumbling. That’s what happens when the social contract rots. I hope the little girl from the Christmas ad plans on going to private school.