Amazon, Apple and the American Dream.
As evidence mounts that public spending is inadequate and failing the American people, Amazon, Apple, and other corporations still manage to keep their profits out of the public coffers.What does that mean for society and our future?
It’s not even an open secret anymore — it’s just a factoid of daily life. Amazon, Apple, Google — all the big tech companies just don’t pay taxes — either via tax breaks granted to them by municipalities or through tax havens abroad. It seems as though rapid globalization did not account for the many loopholes that would be created by giving corporations “free” access to global markets. Or maybe that was one of the perks.
Given that these are the world’s richest companies/people, they also represent one of the largest consolidations of wealth in history; TRILLION-dollar companies, men worth hundreds of billions — this is all wealth that all too often does not see the light of public coffers. And we, as everyday, working citizens, have to live with that and suffer the consequences, despite our providing the labor and expertise. I get the sense that America is turning into a tech start-up in a way.
The stereotypical tech start-up, as the joke goes, is a bustling new business with a lot of flair. They’ve got that fancy, open-office plan. They’ve got ping pong tables and bottomless snacks for your daily breaks. They’ve got a fully-stocked bar in the break room, and of course – the almighty espresso machine. But as far as long-term benefits — the benefits that workers need to guarantee financial and medical security for themselves and their families (fair salaries, insurance, paid maternity leave, pensions, etc) — well, oftentimes the startup falls short. There is only so much that investors’ capital can cover.
Looking at the United States through a macro lens, many of the same shortcomings have manifested on a grand scale. Decades of Reaganomics, of de-regulation of the banking and other high-dollar industries, of an all-out assault against unions and workers that robs even unionized workers of their most basic bargaining tools (e.g. unionized teachers in Texas cannot even strike – under pain of de-certification and loss of pensions) — has meant not only the gutting of the middle class, but an agonizing lack of public money.
The result? 94% of US school teachers admit to having spent their own money on supplies for their classes. Crumbling infrastructure across the nation. A healthcare industry that, by its own nature, cannot exorcise its hedge-fund/insurance company demons that are gouging medication prices (in some cases, once-free medications now carry an annual pricetag of $375,000) and causing premiums to skyrocket at the same time. It is no wonder that upwards of 500,000 US citizens will go bankrupt this year because of soaring healthcare costs — and that’s a conservative estimate.
This is the American tech start-up. All flair, no substance. We’ve got phones that can order ten Dominos pizzas and stream high-quality, 4K HD footage of Kanye’s Valentine’s gift to Kim at the same time. We’ve got delivery services that will soon be able to deliver remote-controlled drones via remote controlled drones. And yeah, I’m fairly certain that people will be able to 3D-print guns soon, or something.
Sounds like a truly wild, futuristic society – they say it’s the richest society in the history of the world! But did the science fiction novels ever ask if the utopias of the future were providing the basic necessities of life? What if everyone had one of the fancy phones, but a medical bill of $400 would tank the well-being of 40% of American adults? Is that utopia providing universal, high-quality education to all of its citizens? Is it ensuring that women do not take a hit to their career or their pay just because they decide to have children?
The US is in dire need of public spending programs to help the majority of its citizens crawl out of the hole created by this brutal, decades-long austerity regime. Federal jobs guarantees, universal healthcare, tuition-free university, a sweeping, job-creating transition to a green economy — these are extremely possible programs considering the sheer amount of wealth produced in this country. But that same wealth, every year via the tax season headlines, stares us right in the face and then turns to walk away.
Perhaps we are content with admitting to ourselves that Apple, Google, Amazon, et al pay little to no taxes because they are more active parts of our lives – I’m typing this on a MacBook computer, my iPhone is right next to it, and I streamed the latest episode True Detective last night via Amazon Prime. Cool. But these are corporations who horde wealth in the exact same manner as the boogeymen at Goldman Sachs, and they should not receive an outrage exemption because they affect our lives in a more visible way.
We mustn’t forget that corporations like Amazon do not exist outside the bounds of society (though it may often feel like it). Society is the people that staff their offices, it is the public schools that educate workers to attain skills for the labor force, it is the roads upon which Amazon so desperately relies for its services and it is the Federal Aviation Administration that coordinates its transcontinental and international services. So why does society at large not deserve reciprocity? And I’m not talking about the flair – not the iPhone XS nor the 2-hour delivery of a Belgian waffle-maker, but the fundamental benefit that makes corporations possible in the first place — public revenue.
For years, American society at large has gotten this equation wrong, time and time again, much of it by design. Reagan’s famous shifting of societal decision-making to private industry and condemnation of “government overreach” meant that many Americans still have a mistrust of consolidated federal power. Americans also still retain a strong entrepreneurial spirit, after all, so many are willing to consider the Bezos’, Cook’s, and Gates’ of the world as the natural byproduct of the American Dream.
But the missing piece of context behind now-extinct American Dream is that the image of the white picket fence and the two-story house was constructed in an era when that was actually possible for large swathes of the (white) American public. There was progressive taxation. The marginal tax rate above $10 million sometimes reached over 90%. We had massive public revenues to build schools and infrastructure; creating stable, well-paid, federal jobs. But that got completely lost somewhere along the way (that’s a can of worms for another post). I remember learning the word fonctionnaire in French class in college and realizing its definition, government worker, felt like a concept almost as foreign to me as French itself.
Without strong public welfare programs and federal programs, we will have to continue to rely on private sector solutions (think charter schools, insurance companies, and uh… Elon Musk) which is what we have been doing and has wholeheartedly proven to fail if the metric is net public benefit. The tech giants can charm us all they want with the Next Greatest Thing, but the people deserve a fair and just return (and perhaps reparations for past decades of austerity).
We are consistently told that we live in the wealthiest society in the world. It is supposed to be a point of pride. The past decade of policies have proven that it is instead a mark of great shame – the vast majority of the population never sees that wealth. To fix that, we are going to have to do some deep introspection with regards to how we want our society to run. In other words, we’re going to have to learn to think different.