Right up until that moment he becomes President, Donald Trump appears before us as a great American joke. He’s funny for many reasons, several of which are down to the comic genius of his hairdresser. Another is his peculiar claim that he’s a great negotiator, that success in business leads to success in national and foreign affairs.
Let’s set aside our knowledge that Donald, former steak merchant, has had many hilarious commercial failures and take the billionaire at his word. We still find this boast pretty funny, don’t we? It is obvious to us that business dealings don’t prepare a guy for political dealings and that “building a wall” to keep poor people out of the US probably doesn’t have much in common with building a casino that keeps poor people inside it.
Business and social policy, we say to ourselves when we look at Trump, should be as separate as church and state! But, we seem inclined to forget this when it comes to persons a little better mannered than the Donald.
It was about a decade ago that the billionaire Bill Gates began to revise his public identity. A guy we once knew as a possibly cut-throat, certainly aggressive business leader was reborn as a silicon saint. The former Microsoft executive finished his work building one of history’s richest companies and set about rebuilding the health of the world.
Now, some of Gates’ immunology projects strike me as pretty sensible. But, the fact that an unelected individual should have such a great impact on global health is not sensible in any way at all.
However reasonable Gates V 2.0 might be, he is not democratically appointed. But, we tend rarely to question his influence and we even celebrate it. And I’m unsure why. Perhaps because, unlike Trump, he seems “nice”.
Giving away scads of cash to worthy causes is now the work of tech giants. And, many of us seem to think this is okay because, after all, the products they make are so innovative.
Gates, who marketed with the kind of hostility that will be admired by scholars of greed for years, might now seem loveable and well-meaning. Perhaps he really is. But, I didn’t appoint this health amateur, and neither did you. His single qualification for the great social power he now wields is wealth.
Like Gates before him, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has turned his attention to world-saving, Google has a program of social policy and since the death of Steve Jobs, Apple has morphed into a conspicuously compassionate policy maker. Giving away scads of cash to worthy causes is now the work of tech giants. And, many of us seem to think this is okay because, after all, the products they make are so innovative.
These products are innovative, of course. But, even leaving aside that the design of a databank network does not prepare one to design a program of meaningful social reform, the most remarkable “innovation” of a company like Apple really comes from its accounting and legal departments.
Thanks to financial management every bit as clever as the brain of your iPad, Apple manages to make a great deal of money in Australia and pay it a very little tax.
There is, at the time of writing, nothing unlawful about the way in which Apple minimises its tax in Australia. There’s something pretty shocking about its complexity though—your clever iPad was not actually purchased new in Australia, but second-hand from Ireland. And, you know, good on them etc. for so bravely failing to pay tax in a nation that brings them so much profit.
But stuff ‘em when they start talking about how our nation should manage its affairs.
These buggers should jolly well pay their taxes and leave the business of shaping the world to persons we actually elected.
This week, Apple has lent its soothing, powerful voice to the cause of same-sex marriage in Australia. “Apple believes all people should be treated equally,” said the company in a statement. Well, so do I, which is why I would like to see Apple pay its equal share of Australian tax before it starts hogging its unreasonable share of Australian influence.
I am also a little cheesed by Apple coming across so “We Heart Equality” even as they continue to source labour in a horrifically unequal way. But, the slaves of Chinese factories and African mines are a fun story for another day.
My point is: we can’t go about trusting companies to exert great social influence simply because they make products we enjoy.
We feel discomfort with Trump’s absurd boast that building a business qualifies him to rebuild a nation. And, so we should. Yet, we are disinclined to question the very real power that history’s richest companies now have. Even if these companies pursue a goal we might admire, such as same-sex marriage or a program of immunisation, there is no guarantee that they will continue to do things we admire.
You can take the view, and many do, that it is better for a large corporation to do some social good than none at all. Or, you can take the view that these buggers should jolly well pay their taxes and leave the business of shaping the world to persons we actually elected.
And if these elected persons turn out to be as repulsive as Donald Trump, we at least retain the right to kick them out of office. Gates, Zuckerberg and Cook are powers we're stuck with.