Rendering Apples to Caesar

My friend Jurg asked me to write something about the EU Commission’s decision that Ireland had given unfair advantage to Apple through the provision of tax loopholes this week. The chat in Ireland is all about what we should do with the €13 billion that the lads in Brussels have told us to take; a tunnel to Wales or a 100-metre-tall golden statue of Michael Flatley seem to be the best ideas at the moment.

Now the bosses in Apple are like you and me. They like to get good value. And if they bring their colossal profits back to California, where arguably they originate, the American tax-man will take 35%. The Apple bosses are concerned with their shareholders’ value. In fact, as the law is currently interpreted, that concern outweighs practically all the other concerns. So they are holding on to about $230 billion in reserves, waiting for the US to revise its tax code and lower that repatriation rate.

They are basically waiting for the sales.

So whatever way you slice this cake, it appears to be a move by the European Commission to call a halt to the waiting game. The scoundrel Irish government will appeal and will surely be successful and will therefore have done the unthinkable: spent money to avoid receiving money.

***

Apple is run by good people. Or at least, let’s assume it is. Why don’t they want to pay tax? The reason is the same reason you don’t want to pay tax. Why would you want to! That money is better in your pocket than in the taxman’s, right? The only certainties in life are death, taxes, and the irrefutably straightforward decision to avoid tax you don’t have to pay.

***

A tax haven is a tricky thing to define. One man’s tax haven in another man’s Singapore, miracle of capitalism and shining beacon of entrepreneurship. Sure, the New York Times referred to Dublin as the “wild west of finance” because the size and the scale of its tax loopholes are large enough to fit Steve Jobs’ ego and €200,000,000,000 with space to spare, but someone else might say it’s the cost of doing business in a competitive global economy.

Nicholas Shaxson, in his book Treasure Islands writes:

Nobody agrees exactly what a tax haven is, but I will offer a loose description here: It is a place that seeks to attract money by offering politically stable facilities to help people or entities get around the rules, laws, and regulations of jurisdictions elsewhere.

Let’s stick with that for the moment.

***

It’s not that the bosses in Apple are bad people. They are just doing what you would want them to do if you owned shares in Apple. They are maximising the return on investment. They are ensuring profitability. They are returning value. They are being good stewards. They are hoarding gold like a dragon in its untouchable lair while children are homeless on the streets of Cork, but you shouldn’t complain because they give jobs to people.

And you can be sure those people pay tax.

***

Apple, and Amazon, Starbucks, and the rest of them, are walking miracles. Let us call them Schrodinger’s Corporations. When the market opportunity arises, they are alive and well and on hand to do business. But go looking for them when it comes time for tax and suddenly they are gone.

This serves the dividend pay-outs of the shareholders, and for all I know, that’s you and your parents. And it serves the value of your pension fund. So the executives will keep searching for the next loophole and the politicians will keep spouting noise about Ireland being open for business and none of them will pay their taxes because taxes get paid by people who aren’t smart enough to get the absurd joke. The rich are secure and get more secure the more at risk they make the poor.

***

Only the rich get to use tax havens. That’s actually a pretty good rule of thumb to figure out if you are rich: do you know the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion? The things we pay for with taxes are the things we need that we can’t guarantee provision for if every man was left for himself. Fire trucks, hospitals, libraries, maternity cover, old-age pensions, street-lights, deaf interpreters in the court service; these are the sorts of things that get de-funded when you ask your accountant to find a way to be more tax efficient. Sure, you spend that extra money on a new flat screen tv and that helps keep a fella in a job in Currys, but that’s not quite the same thing as emergency relief for victims of flooding.

***

And that’s the great tragedy in the tax evasion conversation. The bosses in Apple are probably morally virtuous in ways you don’t imagine. They probably give a lot to charity and they really care about the progressive causes their firm supports and they may even wake at night in a cold sweat about the conditions in the Foxconn factories. They are doing the best they can when they avoid that tax, for you, the shareholder, whose pension is invested in Apple.

The tragedy, of course, is that they aren’t doing the best thing for you. The best thing for you is for everyone to pay their tax. Because the money you spend on tax is the best value money you spend. Every single year you should tally up your tax spend and celebrate it. It helped 5 year olds to learn to read and it allowed mothers to take a break from working, so their babies could sleep in peace on their shoulders for the first few months of their life. If you were left to fund libraries and ambulance services and prisons from your own devices, you’d end up with crappy services and it would take all your time. Your tax spend is more convenient than Uber and better value than Aldi.

***

Apple will eventually pay its tax, at a much lower rate than you or me, in America or here or elsewhere. But when they do, they are adding shareholder value, even if the share price doesn’t reflect that. It is in the shareholder’s interest to make society equitable and fair and just. The innovation that they get so aroused by comes about most effectively when people don’t have to scrabble around in precarious jobs to just make ends meet. Taken to its logical conclusion, a culture of tax evasion is an existential threat to a society because the poor will only tolerate being mocked by the rich for so long before they rise up and decide to mock the order that the rich rely on.

***

Apple has been trading in Ireland longer than I’ve been alive and I’m almost officially middle-aged. They employ 6000 people. They make glossy products that people love. They are not to blame for Ireland’s economic catastrophe and neither are they the solution. But the impossibility of us imagining that straightforward justice would be done – that Apple and their ilk would post profits where they make them and pay tax on them there too, at the same time – reveals the fragility at the heart of our democratic order.

Why do people vote against their interest and back Drumpf or #brexit? Surely that mystery is solved when we consider this absurdist farce. The people who have been entrusted with the collective good can now longer even discern it. People legitimately wonder, “How could Theresa May be worse?” and people coherently ponder, “If the system is genuinely crazy, maybe it would help to put a wig-wearing loon in the driving seat?”

1989 was just the most recent point when history reminded us that even the most extensive societies will collapse if they disconnect from reality. The collective purse being funded by the poorest while the richest get to scarper is unreal. So whatever happens with this particular instance, let me suggest that what we see here is a fracture that is much more serious than Michael Noonan and Tim Cook thinks it is. And between now and the time the fracture gets fixed or grows too big, let me further suggest that you should pay your taxes with glee. All of them. On time. It’s the best money you get to spend.

Your Correspondent, Who needs money when he’s got feathers?

On Byron Burgers and Consumer Boycotts

Tim Maly on how globalisation implicates us:

Something that journalists sometimes do is publish a disclosure statement. It’s sort of like an About Me page except it’s a listing of all their conflicts of interest—all the areas of coverage where you might have good reason to think they should not be trusted. It’ll say things like I once worked at Google or I’m married to an employee of Microsoft.

I have never written one of these but I have fantasies about doing a comprehensive one. It would be the length of a novel, I think. An endless and yet incomplete litany of all the blood, privilege, history, and compromise on my hands.

I am training to be a Christian ethicist. That is a kind of theologian that Christians (used to?) like to have around to tell them what to do so that they can always feel like they are doing the right thing, or at least not doing the wrong thing. It should come as no surprise to Christians that Christian ethicists cannot do this; we cannot tell right from wrong. Surely that’s one of the most interesting things that Christianity claims about the world. As the prophets, the Psalms and Paul, not to mention Jesus and 50 Cent remind us, only God can judge that.

So one of the reasons I think Christians believe they can get by just fine without theology is how unsatisfyingly “vague” are the outputs of all these ethicists at work. All the church wants to know is: “Whether communion is just a meal or does something hocus-pocus-y happen at it?”, and “Can gay people get married and if they do, can they be on the flower rota?”, and most importantly, “Where can I go to stock up on my Autumn wardrobe that is both on fleek and ethical?” We’ve been busily toiling away in the TheoLab for three years now and we do not yet have straightforward answers to any of those questions.

What even is the point?

When I say I do Christian ethics, people think that I write footnotes that validate what they think is right, or wrong, or stupid. But what I actually do is description, not prescription. I don’t produce answers. Rather, at best, I refine questions. This is very valuable work, even if it isn’t valued much. It has a use-value, even if it (currently) has a low exchange-value. But the one thing it doesn’t do is make things simpler. It doesn’t tell us the one true way to proceed. At this point it is important to remember that if the Gospel is true, we are as lost in our virtue as in our vice (See: Jesus of Nazareth, Parable of the Two Lost Sons, Bethany: Dr. Luke Publications, 30AD.) so even if I was able to tell you what is the right thing to do with the Christmas bonus that is still sitting in your bank account, it would be only a little more valuable in the eternal stakes than some bozo accountant encouraging you to invest it in East Asian online gambling firms.

I have many Christian friends who are troubled by the ethics of the things they consume. They want to have a phone that wasn’t made by slave labour and eat meat that wasn’t bred in torture and go on holidays with carbon offsets for the plane ride. I do not intend to malign such efforts, but as the Tim Maly quotation at the top of this piece reminds us, there will be no end to the deliberations involved in buying things rightly, and one thing I am pretty sure is a dead-end is spending your life deliberating about your purchases. The slippy, trickiness of sin means that even our concern for others and for justice and creation-care folds in on itself and we end up navel-gazing about adding possessions more effectively to our store of treasures.

I encountered this problem last week when I heard about the Byron Burger scandals. Byron Burger opened earlier in the year in Aberdeen and it was a cheap(-ish) place to eat a good meal. Such small events can matter when you live in a small city like Aberdeen. The restaurant was directly across from the cinema and so we fairly often found ourselves coming out of Fastly Furiousing 12 starvacious and Byron ended up as our culinary destination.

But it turns out that Byron are cruel employers. They had some staff in London, some of whom had worked for the company for years, who had come to Britain on falsified documents. When the British authorities notified them of this, Byron agreed to organise a staff in-service day which was actually just an ambush. Their employees showed up to learn new ways to wash their hands or to refresh their manual handling skills and instead they were directed into a room where they were arrested and then deported.

Now as my non-EU friends in Aberdeen will tell you, British immigration services are surely among the most obnoxious in the world. And they can prosecute companies that employ “illegals” and fine them up to £20,000! But Byron don’t actually have to go so far as to collude with the political regime. When this news broke, there were protests outside Byron restaurants and people declared their commitment to boycott the company in the future. In accordance to the Newtonian laws of contemporary discourse, when news of that outrage broke, a counter-outrage erupted which declared that Byron were doing the right thing in getting rid of “illegals” and that the leftie-hippy posers who thought that they were fighting for the rights of the oppressed were actually systemically embroiled in denying their ordinary, decent, unemployed British neighbours a chance at a job.

So who is right and who is wrong?

This problem is like every other problem in that it isn’t tractable in that way. And my point is that Christians should know this and even revel in it.

Let us describe the problem. There is language of “illegals” that we would need to consider. Christians, informed by the monumental Biblical teaching on the Stranger would query how someone can be illegal. Acts are illegal, people aren’t. We are invested in using words rightly so we might want to put a big question mark over the rhetoric upon which the broader culture constructs this problem.

There is the question of sin on the personal level, which is the angle Christians are most likely to go to first. This question takes the form of “What about the people who forged documents – weren’t they lying?” This is true and lying is wrong. But it is funny how the obvious companion sentence never appears: “What about the managers who said that it was a training day – weren’t they lying?” Also, how unfortunate are Byron? This one little company ends up with as many as 200 staff with faked papers in just 15 of their restaurants! Those conniving immigrants are obviously running an extraordinarily sophisticated con-job to pull the wool over the eyes of the HR department so successfully! Surely their cunning would have been paired with loftier criminal aims than earning the right to sweat in kitchens?

But the question of counterfeit documents brings up the question of why people from Brasil would ever want to flip burgers in London. Pondering whether or not to avoid a burger joint quickly presses us up against the profound inequalities that mark the global economy. People risk deportation and engage in illegality to work exhausting hours for minimum wage in the back of a London eatery. More than that, they leave their families and friends and cultures behind them to do this half a world away. What sort of insane system have we constructed that means that mothers in Sao Paulo say goodbye for good to their sons just so I can have a quick bite after Minions IV: The Minions Rise?

But before we are entirely swallowed up in the cavernous abyss that is thinking hard about simple issues (a restaurant boycott), we remember that this entire scenario is created by laws that are written by British civil servants and legislators. Britain is a sort of democracy (albeit with a monarchy, no constitution, a hereditary parliament and various other “historical quirks”) so those laws are made by the people voted into power by British people. Britain needs foreigners (to flip their burgers and to negotiate their trade deals now that they are leaving the EU) but Britain sort of hates foreigners. Even the British (notionally) left wing party thinks immigrants need to be “controlled”. How do you convict Byron Burgers of wrong-doing when they are part of a culture that is arguably sick with fear? They needed to avoid the fines that could come their way! What could they do? (Potential better answer: Normalise the working arrangements of their loyal staff.)

Labour immigration mug

This is to say nothing of the issue of eating animal flesh at all. In a world enduring catastrophic climate-change, our continued consumption of beef needs to be scrutinised. It is not unlikely that our grandchildren will stand agog when they hear of how happily we munched on burgers while methane-fuelled climate change flooded Bangladesh. Telling them that we were too excited by George Clooney’s turn in “Prognosis: Dinosaur” to think about what we were doing is unlikely to win us much credit.

How do we navigate our way through this morass? What thread do we pick up that helps us make sense of a mess that we know is a mess, but for the life of us we cannot put into a neat order. Christian ethicists describe the problem and in so doing, when we are lucky (read: providentially appointed), we end up with a perspective that allows us to see the possibility of a better way of doing or saying the things we are trying to do or say.

The staff who were employed by Byron on dodgy permits paid tax. The documents got them in the door, but they also got them in the system. Byron Burger, however, it appears, did not pay their tax in the same way.

The people who own Byron own companies in Luxembourg, a tax haven. Those companies lend money to Byron and charge interest rates above the market level. Byron pays back those loans in a fashion that most effectively minimises their tax burden in the UK.

The people who were deported had no aid to call upon. The people who arranged their deportation have all the aid they need. The people who were deported did not avoid investing in the common fund. The people who arranged their deportation did avoid investing in the common fund.

The people who own Byron broke no laws and the people who were deported did. After describing the situation, that sentence is loaded with surprising ethical significance.

When we describe the situation, we very often find the situation is different from what we imagined. There are problems with the language of “illegals” and there are problems with counterfeiting documents and there are problems with global inequalities and there are problems with societal xenophobia and there are problems with meat. But if we pull on the thread of the entitlement that allows one group of people to dance around the moral responsibility of paying tax – in the light of the deportations and the protests and the counter-protests – we begin to spy a way to make sense of the mess.

The people who own Byron think that the money that straightforwardly would go to pay for schools and streetlights and immigration officers is better off in their pockets (albeit in trousers hung in a wardrobe in Luxembourg). The people who own Byron have money that has freedom to travel. They can dispatch it to a tax haven over there or an investment over here without reference to permits or visas or fear of immigration control. The human beings whose labour generated that money do not have that freedom. They do not live without fear.

I am boycotting Byron and wrote a letter to the manager of the local branch to explain to them why. I am not just boycotting them because of their humiliating treatment of their loyal staff. I am not just boycotting them because I am a migrant who feels solidarity with the plight of migrants less privileged than I am. I am boycotting them because if the practices of Byron Burger were the norm, this society would be royally screwed. I’ll pack sandwiches when I go see Leaving Las Vegas II: The Return to Las Vegas.

We can’t make ourselves ethically right. But we can do what we can to make things less wrong.

Your Correspondent, Just back from Bible Camp where he was learning to be more judgemental

Insufficiently Christian Coffee Cups

It is over a week since I read an article on a dreadful website about how Starbucks’ Christmas-themed coffee cups had, this year, offended Christian groups. When I was last back home someone asked me why I didn’t blog anymore and the honest answer is that usually I am too busy working on a PhD. A subsidiary answer, that’s also true, is that I have become really good at not clicking links. So I rarely get caught up in the discussions that prompt blogging. This time I am in though. I kept meaning to go over to Starbucks and buy a coffee so I could take it back to my office and scrawl something unChristian on the side.

It’s a sunny Saturday morning and I am drinking coffee from a mug my dear friend Gillian bought us. It is turquoise and in block capitals stretching around its walls one reads the letters “OMG”. It’s a little private joke that means a lot to us in the way that tokens of friendship represent much more than the token itself. I never asked myself if my “ohmygod” mug was sufficiently Christian. No Christian who has ever visited my house have been served tea in and mused about whether it was God-honouring or God-mocking. It seems that no one really cares.

OMG Mug

And the mock outrage that I read on that dreadful website has been widely mocked by Christians since it was published. So many tweets and facebook posts and blogs were published about how the Starbucks coffee cups aren’t offensive that they together constituted an expression of internet outrage. We are outraged that someone thinks we could be outraged about something like a coffee cup.

Of course, on one level, the silly little kerfuffle allows us to reflect on a critical aspect of Christian discipleship. 1 Corinthians 13, that famous love-chapter that you have heard read a million times at weddings, says that love takes no offence. Jesus did not get offended easily. He got righteously furious. He burned with a sense of injustice at the oppression of the downtrodden and the sacrilege of holy space. But he took a fair vicious few insults with a shrug of the shoulder and an honest response. In an age of internet mobs and tabloid newspapers and tv dedicated to making you feel fear and offence, the Starbucks nonsense reminds us that we are called to exhibit winsome patience with those who insult us.

And then on a devotional level, the silly little kerfuffle does remind us that Christmas is not the primary Christian festival. Christians are Easter people. Christmas is an annunciation about the coming reconciliation of all things. And in that, a red cup is visually symbolic in a way that something covered with snowmen and Santa can never be.

And on an ethical level, the silly little kerfuffle brings to mind the fact that we are almost all addicted to this bean-drink, which depending on the week is the most traded commodity in the world. And the trade in that commodity is full of deeply disturbing excesses; excess profits and excess agriculture and excess hardship for those who actually cultivate the plants. Why does a copy-and-paste cafe from Seattle end up having such a global cultural weight? These are old questions, but we should keep asking them.

And then on a historical level, this silly little kerfuffle might prompt thoughts about how if Easter is the festival Christians look towards, Christmas is the festival that capitalists shape their year around. For long centuries, Christmas wasn’t even celebrated in the country I live in. The Scottish Presbyterian impulse towards ascetic austerity finds a partner in the much-maligned American puritans, who in a complicated way made capitalist Christmas possible by tolerating it on the grounds that it need not be imbued with religious significance. Christians sometimes fret about Hallowe’en, but it is Christmas that can actually be spiritually toxic.

I am sure there are other angles that other people, who like me are foolish enough to write about this, have spotted. But here is the real place where our thoughts should turn: politics.

If you go back to the original article, the reason I clicked on the link initially was because I wondered, “What Christian group has the time to offer an opinion on such nonsense?” It couldn’t have been the Church of England or the Catholic church and I doubt that the website would consult with any of the massive but basically invisible Pentecostal churches that are changing the face of urban Christianity in Britain. Then I read through the article and found the answer: The Christian Institute.

The Christian Institute is a lobbying group that:

exists for “the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom” and “the advancement of education”.

I love how the scare quotes around furtherance of Christian religion and the advancement of education make it seem as if they are being sarcastic. This is a political charity that has no authority structure connected to actual churches, that seeks to insert itself into the political conversation at every opportunity. My first encounter with them was about 7 years ago, when I received an uninvited group email from them while I worked for a church in Dublin asking for my support in their efforts to oppose the Irish government’s civil union legislation. I sent an email back asking them why, in the light of centuries of imperialism, would a British political group think it can start lobbying over Irish legislation. I got no response.

In fairness, I also got no further emails.

Whenever you look for a Won’t somebody think of the children! response from Christians in the media, you find the Christian Institute. When Christians allegedly boycotted Tesco because one of their staff members called Christians evil on their personal Flickr profile page, it was the Christian Institute. The Christian Institute got nationwide coverage in the UK when it told the shocking story of a British Airways staff member who lost her job because she wore a necklace with a cross on it. When the Employment Tribunal published its report, the story was rather different. In their brave confrontation of the secularist agenda, the Christian Institute claimed that a long-running British soap-opera had covered up a cross while filming a wedding scene in a church. This got widespread attention. When the producers explained that they had not intended to cover up the cross, that prior scripts had the characters discussing how important a religious wedding was to them, that shooting in a 14th Century church is not a cost-effective means of screening Christianity out of a new secular Britain and that the scenes in question did actually feature crosses, it did not get extensive coverage. The Christian Institute did not even graciously acknowledge it.

Coffee cup and supermarkets, airlines and soap-operas: the architects of this secular agenda sure do pick the strangest places to attack Christianity.

Starbucks are tax avoiders, but a search for the Christian Institute’s comment on tax avoidance shows up nothing. Tesco pay unlivable wages, but a search for the Christian Institute’s comment on people being able to live based on the work they do shows up nothing. British Airways are part of an industry that accelerates climate change. A search of the Christian Institute’s comment on climate change is a passing reference to the need to protect the right of teachers making jokes about “man made climate change as a concept.” Soap-operas represent a fascinating form of shared cultural enjoyment but a search of the Christian Institute’s comment on the theology of culture yields no results. If you tinker with the searches however, you find many references to Christian heritage and our culture close together. “Christian”. “Heritage”. “Our”. “Culture”. Each of those four words need to be carefully considered by thoughtful Christians.

I could go on. The Christian Institute was heavily involved in the Ashers’ Bakery case in Belfast. They have links to Creationist groups. They have a history of opposing sex education in schools. But the triviality and paranoia that is combined in this approach to public life has hopefully been demonstrated. This red Christmas cup nonsense is not an emission of the American religious right. It is not a parody perpetrated by the Onion. It is a pernicious form of politics advanced by an “Institute” from the north east of England that declares itself “Christian”. Even on their own terms, if this is the threat that the Christian Institute is guarding us against, we have nothing to fear. The Gospel of Jesus primes us to see the threat facing Christians in this modern age to be Christians. Christians who are selfish and self-deluded, violent and petty.

Much more forcefully, the Gospel of Jesus primes us to face the world in all our complexity and confusion, our sinfulness and our selfishness, our red coffee cups and our gay-agenda promoting soap-operas without fear.

Buy your coffee from Starbucks or buy your coffee from a kiosk at the petrol station. Celebrate Christmas in all it’s tinsel tackiness or stand apart in reflective quiet. But please stop letting the boring and tedious politics of outrage mark Christian witness on this side of the globe. There never was a war on Christmas. But even if there was, Christians don’t fight wars. We break bread. We welcome the outcast. We sing because Creation is beautiful. When we follow the path of these lobby groups, it is not the coffee cups that are insufficiently Christians, it’s the Christians.

Your Correspondent, Building a Noah’s Ark for flat-earth advocates