Apple Nation

The rise of Apple Inc as a dominant global force in the 21st century could not be better pronounced than with the news that it is currently worth an incredible $700 billion, with $178 billion in profit as of the latest quarter. If the company were a country, it would be the 55th richest in the world, on par with New Zealand and bigger than Vietnam, Morocco, and Ecuador (nations that together have well over 120 million people).

The Atlantic, my source for this news, puts this into perspective:

These sort of comparisons help underscore just how much money Apple has, but they’re not entirely nuanced. For instance, although Apple has made history with its earnings, there have been countries just as rich—and richer—once you adjust for inflation. In that case, Apple still hasn’t hit Microsoft’s high-water mark in 1999. (Microsoft was worth $620 billion then; which would exceed $870 billion in today’s dollars.) But what does that tell us, really, other than how quickly tech fortunes can change? After all, Apple today is worth more than twice as much as Microsoft ($349 billion). In 1999, though, Apple was perhaps notable for making colorful iMacs that dotted high-school computer labs, but not much else.

It is astounding that a private company could accrue enough wealth to rival entire nations, or to give every American $556. I see it as a troubling development, insofar as it is indicative of a wider trend of global inequality, with more wealth becoming concentrated among a small cohort of the population — mostly the shareholders, executives, and financiers involved in the trading and investing of these big companies.

Apple’s beleaguered workers, namely those subcontracted in the developing world, certainly deserve some sort of bonus for helping to make these record-breaking profits possible. If such compensation is a way to reward success, and to encourage productivity and performance, as businesspeople alleged, than does that logic not apply to average people? Or are only the rich who helm the top of these companies entitled (or apparently in need of) such motivation?

It is scary to think that this is hardly an unprecedented development either:

No modern tech company has approached the value of trading companies of the 1700s, though, and the Dutch East India Company trumps them all. The shipping juggernaut was the world’s first publicly traded company. At its height,according to several estimates, it was worth the equivalent of more than $7 trillion in 2015 dollars. That’s a seven with 12 zeros after it—or Apple’s valuation today 10 times over.

The Dutch East India Company was ultimately undone, at least in part, by the weight of corruption and venality among its personnel. It seems a common fate for institutions that become swept up in unchecked growth and the subsequent expectations for more and more. This is not a sustainable model for any organized system, whether it is a government or a tech firm.

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