May 1, 2012
For atheistic fundamentalists, God's invisibility is proof enough He does not exist and priests, all too real, live at the expense of the credulous. While such arguments take an eternity to decide, do not be swayed by insinuations that besmirch invisibility as a mark of irrelevance. Imagine physicists' dismay if their research budgets were slashed on account of their spending taxpayers' hard earned money on the dark matter hypothesis.
In reality, invisibility is the prime privilege of power. See how earthly ambition strives to achieve it for material gains.
Steven Pinker claims bodily violence has declined in the western world (1). I take hope in a trend I anticipated. But what an incentive for violence to become invisible. It has given us torture which leaves no marks and "chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.", whether from playing American football or soldiering in Irak. Nicholas D. Kristof writes "there is now no [...] way of diagnosing C.T.E. other than examining the brain after death".
Compare now News Corp to Wal-Mart. Andrew Martin reports that "Wal-Mart de Mexico ha[s] paid millions of dollars in bribes to help advance its expansion in a crucial market" (**). How crude. No longer condoning such visible corruption, Western societies only admit the more courtly practice of pronaocracy of which Rupert Murdoch is an old master. "By his own, often amusing account, the 81-year-old head of News Corp never asks for favours from politicians". "The idea of a quid pro quo for supporting [the UK] governement never entered his head" (***). How sweet.
The campaign donations with which one buys US laws may be less subtle than Ruper Murdoch's influence barters in the UK. What matters though is that neither methods leave explicit marks of the underlying, invisible quid pro quo's John Gapper aptly calls "implicit bargains".
And let us not count on the public to see through this hypocrisy as its credulousness has no limit. Is there a nation on earth whose citizens do not grumble about taxes? Americans are among the most allergic, yet they gladly pay taxes as long as the latter remain invisible. The Facebook serfs, do they not willingly surrender their data? The citizens who gamble in state-sponsored lotteries and casinos, do they not happily contribute their money?
But perhaps the most astounding feat of invisibility has been pulled by corporations. Be they Wal-Mart or News Corp, they are all too visible, you object. Beware of mere appearances. Where does the US Constitution, to take an example, mention corporations? It is true US laws have granted they be considered to be persons, covered as such by the constitution. But masquerading thus hides more than it reveals.
Corporations are not normal persons. The most careful far outlive mere human mortals, the richest have resources to dwarf many a state. For instance Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski reveal Apple has "more than $110 billion in the bank, according to company filings" (****). The most active are ubiquitous, physically present in many countries at the same time.
Besides, corporations have no moral conscience. Cynics will reply too many humans behave in the same way. For both, laws are there to protect the fabric of society. But there's the rub. For a corporation, running afoul of the law is a business cost and may be justified by its own raison d'Útat.
Corporations are not immune to painful punishment. They can die in bankruptcy, be put under trustee supervision or fined in proportion to their assets rather than to the offense committed. But justice is no more served when sentences are too harsh than when they are too lenient.
How indeed can one apply the rule of the law, so necessary to the success of capitalism, to corporations which act like the world powers they are? The exercise of Justice is replaced by exercises in external relations between states and non state actors whose ubiquity acts as an invisibility shield.
In their exposÚ, Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski show how Apple uses its multinational footprint to make its profits quasi invisible to American tax authorities. On paper, it generates 70% of its profit abroad with only 28% of its employees, even though it "oversee[s] most of [its] operations from California". Strange isn't? If they are so grossly unproductive, shouldn't it fire all those lazy managers back home? Could it be that social solidarity in the United States, California and Cupertino, where Apple headquarters are located, is artificially deprived of adequate funding?
It would be myopic to use these pointed questions as an attack against Apple, capitalism or globalization per se. The authors of the exposÚ suggest instead a more farsighted lesson. "The growing digital economy" tilts the balance of corporate taxation against the states. "It is much easier for businesses with royalties and digital products to move profits to low tax countries than it is, say, for grocery stores". Wal-Mart, please take notice.
Indeed the task at hand is to reestablish this balance between states and corporations so violently disrupted by the Information Age as so many other customs. That, to begin with, this balance was implicit and so invisible turns it into a challenge. Yet the path towards a solution is simple as long as one takes decentralization to heart. In the Information Age and contrary to all current trends, the individual must be enabled rather than enslaved.
Notice that, no matter where they are, corporations become visible each time a customer pays for their offer. Why not tax the corporations then and there? Wouldn't it simply mirror the added-value tax, which asks each seller on its behalf to collect the tax assessed by the state on each buyer?
Granted, much work would be needed to implement such an idea so that it does not become another sales tax. Collection prior to assessment entails a refund mechanism. But wouldn't corporations thus become free to pick where to settle for better reasons than to escape taxes? Can't a state enlist its citizens in funding their very own social solidarity? Doesn't the smart phone put enough computing power in the hand of consumers?
Corporations can be at rest. Without a real right to eprivacy under "Privacy, Identity, Responsibility", my motto, all purchases would be tracked by the state and citizens easily abused in their new role. They would not be the first tax collectors to rebel and pocket the money instead. Yet states will never grant plain citizens such a privilege as meaningful eprivacy, quite the opposite. They fear too much the power which comes with invisibility.
"When Hu Jintao, China's top leader, picked up the telephone to talk to a senior anticorruption official visiting Chongqing, special devices detected that he was being wiretapped - by local officials in that southwestern metropolis" (*****). Whether Jonathan Ansfield and Ian Johnson's sources are accurate or not, and newspapers have been known to take flights of fancy, this shows only too well how confidentiality and power intertwine.
Unless a state stops trampling on its citizens' privacy, it may be made irrelevant by corporations endowed with invisibility, this most precious goods.
- (*) ......... Veterans And Brain Disease, by Nicholas D. Kristof (New York Times) - Apr 26, 2012
- (**) ....... Wal-Mart Vows to Fix Its Controls, by Andrew Martin (New York Times) - Apr 25, 2012
- (***) ..... What politicians lost to Murdoch, by John Gapper (Financial Times) - Apr 26, 2012
- (****) ... How Apple Sidesteps Billions in Taxes, by Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski (New York Times) - Apr 29, 2012
- (*****) . Fall of Chinese Official Is Tied to Wiretapping Of His Fellow Leaders, by Jonathan Ansfield and Ian Johnson (New York Times) - Apr 26, 2012
- (1) for more information, see Steven Pinker in the wikipedia