Mark Zuckerberg is only 33 years old but already he runs arguably the world’s most powerful company. Facebook has devastated rival media groups to stand dominant over the flow of information and news in the digital age, a technology behemoth with two billion monthly users around the planet. It has unparalleled access to data, influences elections and has even toyed with mood manipulation.
Like all the gods standing guard over the gates to this brave new world, Zuckerberg poses as a benevolent philanthropist in his jeans and grey T-shirt. Five of the world’s most valuable firms are technology firms, and their founders like to claim they are changing the world for the better, even as they crush rivals with cold-blooded ruthlessness. Google’s motto is famously ‘Don’t Be Evil.’
The Facebook boss celebrated the birth of his first child with claims he was giving $45 billion to charity. This led to a fresh crop of fawning headlines, although closer scrutiny found he had shifted stock into a tax-efficient limited liability company that he controls. Microsoft founder Bill Gates is hailed a hero for his oft-stated mission to save the world’s poor, telling countries to hit the United Nation’s silly target of giving away 0.7 percent of national income in aid as he sprays around his own cash.
These two tech gurus spend massive sums on their good deeds. Many of their fellow billionaires in Silicon Valley are doing the same – and it is laudable they are trying to help poorer people rather than frittering away their mountains of cash on cocaine and flash cars. Yet as Zuckerberg tours the United States, with growing talk he seeks to follow Donald Trump into the White House, let’s pause for a second before cheering on their seemingly selfless generosity.
For a frightening arrogance lies behind these plutocrats posing as latter-day saints. People such as Gates and Zuckerberg built up astonishing wealth by running firms that persistently refused to pay a fair share of tax to governments around the world. Having subverted Western democracies and weakened public services by abusing revenue-raising systems, they now claim to hold answers to our pressing problems.
This is gross hypocrisy. When Gates ran Microsoft the firm was even held up as a case study in the United States Senate for an inquiry into tax avoidance. By shifting mammoth earnings around smaller countries, it escaped paying an estimated £3bn a year. Last year, the firm was exposed for avoiding up to £100million a year in Britain alone by booking sales in Ireland under a secret deal with tax authorities.
Sure, he says he pays his personal taxes. But Gates became the world’s richest man off the back of massive corporate tax dodging. Yet because he is now giving away much of his money on his own terms rather than through the collective will of elected government, he thinks he has the right to tell the rest of us how to spend the taxes we do pay. He insists rich nations have moral duty to hit that risible aid target, despite growing evidence much of the money is wasted and, worse, backfires by fostering conflict and corruption.
Zuckerberg has called Gates his hero. This is unsurprising, given Facebook has adopted similar corporate tactics. Three years ago this giant firm paid an insulting £4,327 in corporation tax in this country — significantly less than my own personal tax bill. Yet we can presume staff, taking home an average £210,000 each, relied on state-funded public servants to provide health care in hospitals and police on streets as they helped grow their world-beating firm.
The following year it paid £4.2 million in corporation tax, but this was more than offset by a tax credit made when share options issued to employees pay out. “In practice, Facebook UK appears to have paid nothing in corporate tax to the UK public purse — less, even, than the £4,327 in 2014,” Alex Cobham of Tax Justice Network told the Financial Times. Last year, after deductible expenses, it handed over £2.58 million in UK corporation tax on £842.4 million revenues and pre-tax profits of £58.4 million.
Zuckerberg became rich because he had a clever idea allied to entrepreneurial skills, but he was aided by some of the world’s most sophisticated experts in tax avoidance. These firms may not be breaking the law, but the state is no match for armies of highly-paid accountants and lawyers using outdated regulations designed for the pre-internet age as they shift paper profits around the planet. A report last month found a digital business with international operations pays a typical 10.1% tax rate in Europe, compared with the 23.2% coughed up by other companies.
One multi-millionaire financier has even defended what he termed ‘self-tax’, the idea the super-rich are so smart they should determine how they spend their income rather than the state. Yet with such contempt for their fellow citizens or common values, these cut-throat capitalists are like a new wave of robber barons: first they get rich through ruthless tactics, then they purify their public image giving away big sums. We saw such practises before with the likes of oil monopolist John D. Rockefeller.
These tech billionaires pose as philanthropists and pledge to innovate in health and education having built fortunes on grubby tax avoidance. Yet one reason the public sector struggles is its constant funding shortage, partly due to rampant corporate tax dodging signed off by wealthy bosses. “We should be careful not to fall victim to a perverse form of Stockholm syndrome, coming to sympathise with the corporate kidnappers of our democracy,” wrote the author Evgeny Morozov last year.
If Zuckerberg makes a presidential bid, he could harness the huge power of his platform to create a tidal wave of support. Yet good businessmen often make lousy politicians, due to instinctive reliance on top-down decision-making and reluctance to compromise. And for proof these people are often no better than politicians in tackling the toughest problems, look at what happened when the Facebook founder himself promised to transform America’s schools.
Seven years ago, Zuckerberg told a cheering television audience of a $100m gift to turn schools in Newark, New Jersey, into “a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” His donation was doubled with other funds. Yet the scheme failed after blowing $20 million on consultants, making a series of blunders and running into opposition from parents, teachers and community leaders. “There was this enormous gap between the people who came to save the Newark children and the people who actually cared for and taught the Newark children,” discovered writer Dale Russakoff.
It is fine to admire plutocrats laden with gold as they promise to change the world and give vast chunks of cash. But do not be fooled: for all their fine words and casual clothes, these people have displayed arrogance towards the rest of us. They talk of changing society for the better but hid their piles of money through grotesque tax-avoidance schemes that undermine democracy and fuel populism. Gates, Zuckerberg and the self-aggrandising technology titans are part of the problem, not the solution.