Despite a wave of populist anger at corporate profits and income inequality, Apple has managed massive success without angering the masses.
This week Apple announced its 1Q12 earnings, which can best be described as staggering. The Cupertino giant hauled in an unprecedented $13.1 billion in profit on $46.3 billion in sales. Bigger still, is the roughly $100 billion stack of cash which the company sits on – that’s around $300 for every man woman and child in the country. All these astronomical figures add up to make Apple the single most valuable corporation on the planet.
Whether it’s on NPR, New York Times, or even Fox News, it’s impossible to escape the current fierce spate of anti-economic-inequality populism. The left is beginning to make higher taxation on the super rich its raison d’Ãªtre. Even the right may not be far behind, as evidenced by primary voter discomfort with Romney’s disproportionately low tax disclosure. The Occupy movement has already sliced the world in two; the 99% vs. the 1%. So the question is, where does Apple fit into this “us vs. them” reality?
If we look at the company in purely economic terms, Apple is the 1% of the 1%. Apple rakes in huge profits. Apple is super rich. Apple pays low taxes. According to economist Martin Sullivan, “by taking advantage of lax U.S. and foreign tax laws, Apple has been able to book a large share of its foreign profits in low-tax jurisdictions and greatly reduce its tax liability in the United States”. Apple leverages every possible advantage from manufacturing in China, to well-oiled distribution â€” not unlike what any other capitalist would do, be it an investment banker, or a factory owner.
However, if we look at Apple in terms of socio-political identity, the answer gets a bit murky. Apple is somehow shielded from this populist economic sentiment by some sort of aura. When ExxonMobil was raking in record profits, the country started boosting Home Depot’s earnings through pitchfork and torch purchases. Rather than criticize Apple’s less flattering practices, the company is extolled for its ingenuity and its brilliant late founder, as was the case in president Obama’s State of the Union address the very week Apple released its earnings. When it comes to the toys people adore, the ends seem to justify the means. Stranger still, many of the Occupiers who rail against economic inequality and corporate greed are Apple customers, and are precisely the company’s target market; the educated ones, the crazy ones, the creative ones, the ones who challenge the status quo, the ones who Think Different. (Full disclosure: I don’t own a single share of Apple stock, but I’m typing this on a new MacBook Pro, with notes compiled on an iPhone 4S.)
The question then becomes, how is it possible that the most valuable company in the world and the shining example of the creative/destructive powers of capitalism is also one that is embraced by the very same masses protesting the creative/destructive powers of capitalism? It is an absurd scenario, as absurd as a devout Buddhist who creates irresistible products, as absurd as the many seemingly irreconcilable truths of which Steve Jobs is comprised.
The answer may lie in the idea that corporations are people. While the Supreme Court ruling is utterly stupid, Apple somehow perfectly embodies and makes it work. This shielding aura is that of Steve Jobs himself, and that of his renowned reality distortion field. Apple products strike at the core of our perceived and desired identity, rather than our utilitarian needs. We understand them as an extension of ourselves, and simultaneously an extension of Jobs. They don’t really come from cold prison-like industrial super factories in China, but rather from Steve’s warm hands. Yes, Apple Inc. is a person, and one who we deeply admire, and love, and hesitate to criticize even when he doesn’t always do what’s in our best interest. And like every other person, Apple Inc. is a complex totality made up of both the 99% and the 1%.
But if Steve Jobs is gone, how can this aura and personhood still exist? Marketing. Really great marketing.
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