"More than machinery, we need humanity."
There’s something theatrical about seeing fabulously wealthy CEOs pulled before a government panel and grilled about tax avoidance. Granted, the “grilling” is frequently more befitting a bunch of chums gathered around a backyard barbecue than what one might expect from a serious government. After all, is anybody still surprised to hear that major corporations frequently pay far less than the standard corporate tax rate of 35 percent?
Such displays have to them something of a tragicomic tone, not because what has occurred is such a tragedy or so hilarious, but in the sense that there is something of a Greek tragedy to these situations. Greek tragedies often revolved around a strong individual as hero (Apollo) trying to resist the chaotic bacchanal of an uncontrollable natural force (Dionysus) with the hero frequently being torn apart by the forces of nature in the end (that was a huge oversimplification). Yet in its current playing out: the CEO takes on the role of the Apollonian hero, the panel don the robes of the woeful chorus, and the public is meanwhile drunk on the Dionysian diversions on another channel. Instead of being drunk on the fruit of the vine, we’re drunk on the devices, and thus the Apollonian character escapes retribution.
The matter of corporations and their taxes often falls along the continuum of people’s political perspectives, and the same could be said of the Senators who sit slightly above (as in the physical sense) the CEOs. Yet this matter also reveals itself largely in regards to what corporation it is that’s been hauled before a committee. Thus, there was a certain oddity to behold when Apple CEO Tim Cook was brought before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to explain why Apple actually pays quite a bit less than the aforementioned standard corporate tax rate of 35 percent.
In an article, in The New York Times, titled “Apple’s Web of Tax Shelters Saved it Billions, Panel Finds” it was predicted that the panel’s findings (about how little Apple actually pays, would:
“set up a potentially explosive confrontation between a bipartisan group of lawmakers and Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive,”
So, how explosive was it. Not very. Cook’s response to the panel is easily summed up with the following line:
“We pay all the taxes we owe — every single dollar.”
And perhaps it was this less-exciting-than-promised sort of exchange that prompted Times’ columnist Joe Nocera, in a piece titled “Here Comes the Sun” to lambast Cook’s appearance before the panel. Not barred by any need to present a Senator’s decorum, Nocera was freed to be a little bit more blunt, referring to some of Cook’s testimony as “a flat-out lie” (which would suggest that Cook may have perjured himself) and:
“Cook spent Tuesday claiming that the sun was setting when it was actually rising, and, predictably, by the time the hearing had ended, most of the senators were agreeing with him.“
Evidently Cook wove quite the illusion. There are the obvious points to make about Cook’s testimony, many of which Nocera does make, such as indicating that what Apple does is in fact legal. And what emerges is the raised-eyebrow-response to the matter of Cook being right about claiming that Apple pays all the taxes it owes, a statement which is different from claiming that Apple pays all of the taxes it should. Apple, and similar companies, are great at figuring out ways to minimize their payments, and what they can’t figure out how to totally avoid paying, they pay (and that is the “all the taxes we owe” part).
In times of sequestration and austerity it takes quite some bravado to sit in front of members of a Senate panel and claim that your company does not owe all of those extra billions that you have conveniently hidden away. After all, one fairly easy way to take a stab at the deficit or to avoid sequestration or further austerity is to ensure that corporations really are paying the 35 percent that they’re supposed to pay. But I digress…
Obviously this leads into the standard narrative of a CEO also saying that the US tax code is antiquated and crummy (which it is) and using this as an excuse to ask for a tax code that would make it easier for corporations to continue to pay so little money (which would still be a crummy tax code). CEOs pine for a tax holiday so they can repatriate the money they have stashed overseas, and you can rest assured that in the case of such a holiday these same CEOs will just begin piling up the money again and demanding another tax holiday.
Yet the aspect of Cook’s appearance that is the most interesting has far less to do with what Cook said or how he said it. Though Nocera characterizes Cook’s words as persuasive (at least to the Senators), Cook’s performance seemed rather uninteresting to me. Cook seemed like just another CEO defensively claiming that his company has not hidden money away, has paid all that it has owed, and is already taxed far too much. What sets Cook apart is that he’s the CEO of Apple, and people like Apple, people really like Apple.
Sure, Apple makes some shiny pieces of technology, but in the sheen of the iWhatever screen what people see is less the Apple that is and more the company that they think Apple is. Apple (and some other tech firms) true brilliance lies not in their gadgets but in their messaging, and in the way that they have convinced consumers to invest not just their money but their personal identity into the product. Thus people forget that Apple products are made in sweatshops, that Google is systematically violating our privacy, that WholeFoods is virulently anti-union, and that all of these companies will happily dodge every tax they can. After all, we’re supposed to like these companies. And, even if we know they’re terrible, we tell ourselves that of all the terrible companies out there, they’re the ones that are moderately less terrible.
People don’t like seeing Tim Cook summoned in front of the Senate committee to answer questions about avoiding taxes because it makes us look at our Apple products and realize that in exchange for a sleek phone we’re propping up and empowering a thoroughly unethical company. People may love to voice their hatred of Monsanto (or other companies) but they want to be able to tweet out their rage from their iPhone.
We’ve taken the Apple and turned it into technological-cider on which we’ve become drunk, but in our partaking in the Dionysian dancing we’ve allowed ourselves to think that we’re dancing with Apple when in fact all that they’ve done is gotten us drunk and befuddled our critical facilities. Writing about Greek tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche noted:
“Apollo embodies the transcendent genius of the principium individuationis; through him alone is it possible to achieve redemption in illusion.” (97)
and thus it is in the “genius” of Apple that we are meant to find comfort and redemption in shiny techno-toys and the illusion of the company as a beacon for creativity instead of a cave filled with the standard corporate personalities. Nietzsche continued:
“The mystical jubilation of Dionysos, on the other hand, breaks the spell of individuation,” (97)
While this breaking of the spell can be of the Apollonion characters might it can also be of our own individuation, allowing us to submerge our individuation and our ethical demands (more on that here) in the corporate identity of some other individual. A redemptive jubilation has become slavery to those supplying the drug. Apple has its legions of devotees intoxicated and churning about in a vast Appleonion orgy of praise for all things bearing the fruit logo, whilst hoping that the periodic refilling of the goblets will mean that these revelers see in the bite missing from the logo their own teeth marks instead of their own subjugation.
If the Apple logo represents 35%, than that sliver missing is what Apple actually pays.
Tim Cook plays the tragic hero well, particularly since he knows that he has nothing to fear from the Dionysian mob who he has helped to not just get drunk but to become addicted on what he peddles. Cook has us reveling in the illusion of Apple, and it is this illusion in which he was able to entrance the Senators at the panel, but unless we realize that his (and similar) companies have been poisoning the wine we will be too intoxicated or confused to act.
Or, as Theodor Adorno once wrote:
“To become transformed into an insect, man needs that energy which might possibly achieve his transformation into a man.”
Yes, Apple makes some nice gadgets that you can do interesting things with. But it is dangerous to identify with the gadget and the company that produced it, this energy that makes us insects buzzing around the apple core, could be used for more. Eating of this Apple has rotted our teeth, our minds and intoxicated us with the illusion of what the company actually is. Perhaps it’s time for us to fling this apple core to the compost pile before we bite down on the seeds.
After all, apple seeds contain arsenic. Apple’s seeds too.
This piece cites two works:
Adorno, Theodor. “On Popular Music.” (1941)
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy & The Genealogy of Morals. Anchor Books, 1956.