There’s something fishy about Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil.” I’m not saying it’s controversial but it makes you think, “Why bring that up? Why have you suddenly put the subject of being evil on the agenda?”
It’s suspicious in the same way as Ukip constantly pointing out how racist they’re not – which my colleague Charlie Brooker said on 10 O’Clock Live was, “rather like someone who’s just moved in next door saying, ‘Hi, I’m Geoff, your non-dogging neighbour.'”
But we mustn’t assume that the maxim was an attempt by executives to draw a line under some diabolical brainstorm, in which the internet giant pulled itself back from the brink of green-lighting a scheme to grind our bones to make its bread.
It could just as easily have come out of a discussion of the possibility of doing good. “Always do good”, “Try to do some good” or “Be good” might have been previous drafts of the motto before they concluded that goodness was as impractical as malevolence was distasteful and decided on “Don’t be evil” as more realistic in a modern business environment. “Settling for one notch below altruism” is all the slogan really means.
Still, I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. And there’s no earthly reason why Google should do any good to anyone but itself – which is presumably why it pays so little tax. Although that’s not how Matt Brittin, Google’s head of sales in northern Europe, explained the situation to the House of Commons public accounts committee on Thursday.
“No one in the UK can execute transactions,” he said. He wasn’t bemoaning a lack of competence in British workers but proudly talking MPs through a tax dodge. Even though there are sales staff in Britain, “No money changes hands.”
Nudge nudge, wink wink. Since the vast majority of Google’s £3.2bn of UK sales are routed through Ireland, the company paid only £6m of corporation tax. I’m not saying that’s necessarily evil, but it’s certainly not good.
Amazon, in contrast, has never ruled out evil as part of its business plan, aspiring only to “Work hard. Have fun. Make history.” It sounds like an Apprentice contestant’s Twitter profile. Last week it emerged that, despite £4.2bn of UK sales, the company paid only £2.4m in corporation tax in 2012.
In the same year it received £2.5m in government grants. Which makes it a net benefits scrounger. And, in terms of sheer rapacious acquisitive nerve, I’d say that has made a little bit of history.
Is there any point in my being angry about this? Everyone else already is. It feels like the interesting thing would be to come out in favour of it. After all, as the company’s spokesman proudly announced: “Amazon pays all applicable taxes in every jurisdiction that it operates within.”
So maybe it’s fine. Better than that, maybe it’s crazy and interesting. It’s a challenging artwork, but instead of oil paint or wood or clay or the excrement of the artist, it’s constructed out of pure injustice.
A huge, malevolent sculpture of unfairness, ground-breaking and thought-provoking, reminding us of the iniquities of the natural world – a corporate metaphor for the worms that will one day eat all of our corpses.
Like any really important work of art, it’s bound to upset a few people. Just as Banksy causes collateral damage to the neatness of walls, so Amazon’s masterpiece is a defacement of the public purse.
But it’s not just some hooligan’s tag, like Google’s artless Irish scam. This shows an impish wit and a dark insight. What elevates Amazon’s activity is the fact that it applied for government grants.
The elegance of that corporate choice is like the ambiguity of the Mona Lisa‘s smile, the ruthlessness of Mike Tyson’s punch and the adaptability of the malaria virus combined. There is no point in criticising anyone or anything that can do that. They can only be admired or destroyed.
The more you think about it, the more brilliant it is. At first glance, the deftness of securing government funding, which was intended to sustain and encourage marginal businesses, is rather pleasing.
The thought of the thousands of small enterprises that could have been nourished and helped to survive by the cash Amazon has swallowed in one tax-cancelling mouthful is challenging and absorbing. It’s the monster that’s made a myriad food parcels into its canapé.
But it gets even better. If, for a second, you make the mistake of thinking that giving Amazon handouts might nevertheless help the UK – by incentivising the company to create jobs in Britain even if, for tax purposes, it exists only in Luxembourg – then think again. Because Amazon is the great job-killer.
For every job it creates, more than one is destroyed on the high street. It’s the great annihilator of work and yet it’s receiving a job-creation government subsidy. It doesn’t just absorb money that would be better spent creating employment elsewhere, it deploys it to decimate the chances of that employment.
I understand that the changes in work and business patterns being caused by the internet are inevitable and irreversible. To try to stop them would be railing against the tide. Still, it’s amazing that Amazon, in an act of dazzling contempt, has persuaded the treasury actually to pump water into the rising sea.
I don’t really think that these problems can be fixed. It’s the role of politicians to say that something must be done – with a sense of purpose if in power, and outrage if in opposition.
But their jobs are too tenuous and short-lived, the international tax system too complex and the corporations too tenacious to stop this sort of thing happening.
Loopholes will crop up by accident and, where they don’t, the intense and remorseless lobbying of the already astronomically wealthy will ensure that more are created.
We can work ourselves up in impotent fury or – and this is a calmer way to live – just sit back and enjoy the majesty of a terrible thing done well. A
mazon’s tax and grant arrangements are the beautiful ivory candlestick revealed by the silhouettes of British taxpayers’ incredulous faces. The politicians and public provide the backdrop of incompetence and rage in front of which huge companies can display their work of corporate perfection. As the mushroom cloud showed us decades ago, evil can be beautiful.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.