Ap­ple’s CEO barn­storms for ‘moral re­spon­si­bil­ity’

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the LBJ Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary, the mu­seum of Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son.

“One of the things that hits you,” he said, is “all of the ma­jor acts, leg­is­la­tion, that hap­pened dur­ing just his pres­i­dency.” His eyes widened as he listed some: “You have the Civil Rights Act, the Vot­ing Act, you have Medi­care, you have Med­i­caid, you have sev­eral na­tional parks, you have Head Start, you have hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion, you have jury dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

“Re­gard­less of your pol­i­tics,” he con­tin­ued, “you look at it and say, ‘My gosh.’ ”

Cook’s com­ments weren’t a dig at Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump so much as they were a cri­tique of Wash­ing­ton’s seem­ingly per­pet­ual state of grid­lock.

And now Cook is one of the many busi­ness lead­ers in the coun­try who ap­pear to be fill­ing the void, us­ing his plat­form at Ap­ple to wade into larger so­cial is­sues that typ­i­cally fell be­yond the man­date of ex­ec­u­tives in past gen­er­a­tions.

He said he had never set out to do so, but he feels he has been thrust into the role as vir­tu­ally ev­ery large Amer­i­can com­pany has had to stake out a do­mes­tic pol­icy.

He was vo­cal, for ex­am­ple, in crit­i­ciz­ing Trump af­ter Char­lottesville in a memo to his staff: “I dis­agree with the pres­i­dent and oth­ers who be­lieve that there is a moral equiv­a­lence be­tween white su­prem­a­cists and Nazis, and those who op­pose them by stand­ing up for hu­man rights. Equat­ing the two runs counter to our ideals as Amer­i­cans.”

Watch­ing Cook over the years, I’ve been fas­ci­nated to see how he has be­come as an­i­mated when talk­ing about big is­sues like ed­u­ca­tion and cli­mate change as he is when talk­ing about Ap­ple.

“I think we have a moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to help grow the econ­omy, to help grow jobs, to con­trib­ute to this coun­try and to con­trib­ute to the other coun­tries that we do busi­ness in,” he said.

He added, “I think there’s still prob­a­bly a more sig- nif­i­cant group that feels my sole re­spon­si­bil­ity is to Wall Street.”

His crit­ics will, of course, say all this happy talk is a PR ploy for a com­pany that makes its most pop­u­lar prod­ucts on the other side of the world and keeps nearly a quar­ter-tril­lion dol­lars abroad, un­taxed by Un­cle Sam. In fair­ness, Ap­ple is one of the largest tax­pay­ers in the coun­try, pay­ing $28 bil­lion in fed­eral taxes be­tween 2014 and 2016 at an av­er­age rate of 26 per­cent, which is in the mid­dle for big multi­na­tional U.S. cor­po­ra­tions.

And Cook is paid hand­somely: On Thurs­day, as a re­sult of the com­pany’s fi­nan­cial out­per­for­mance com­pared with its peers, Cook was given nearly $90 mil­lion of stock as part of his pre­vi­ously agreed upon com­pen­sa­tion plan. (He has said he plans to give away all of his wealth.)

But there’s a more nu­anced ver­sion of Ap­ple’s story — and Cook’s trans­for­ma­tion of the com­pany af­ter tak­ing over as its chief ex­ec­u­tive in 2011 — that has been lost amid the din of non­stop chatter about the com­pany in Sil­i­con Val­ley and Wash­ing­ton.

When Cook an­nounced, for ex­am­ple, the new data fa­cil­ity in Wau­kee, he said it would run fully on re­new­able en­ergy. But he slipped in an­other fact that has largely gone un­no­ticed: Over the past sev­eral years, Cook has got­ten all of the com­pany’s cor­po­rate fa­cil­i­ties in the United States to run on wind and so­lar en­ergy — in their en­tirety.

“We’re run­ning Ap­ple a hun­dred per­cent on re­new­able en­ergy today” in the United States, he said over break­fast, “and we’ve now hit that in 23 other coun­tries around the world.”

That’s not to say Cook, 56, is run­ning an al­tru­is­tic in­sti­tu­tion. Ap­ple re­ceived $208 mil­lion in tax breaks from Iowa to lo­cate its data cen­ter there. The state has ag­gres­sively re­cruited tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Face­book and Mi­crosoft, with deep sub­si­dies. A Los An­ge­les Times colum­nist crit­i­cized the state as a “first-class patsy” for mak­ing the deal with Ap­ple, which will cre­ate 1,700 con­struc­tion jobs but only about 50 long-term jobs. Ap­ple agreed to do­nate “up to $100 mil­lion” for local in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing a youth sports com­plex, off­set­ting part of the tax break.

Cook is most pas­sion­ate when he talks about ed­u­ca­tion, which led the com­pany to cre­ate the cur­ricu­lum for de­vel­op­ing apps, es­ti­mated to be a $1.3 tril­lion part of the global econ­omy.

He is hop­ing the cur­ricu­lum turns into jobs. Last year, ac­cord­ing to Ap­ple, 150,000 new jobs were cre­ated through the App Store. Ap­ple paid out $5 bil­lion di­rectly to app mak­ers.

He said he had cho­sen to fo­cus on get­ting the cur­ricu­lum to com­mu­nity col­leges, rather than four-year col­leges, be­cause “as it turns out, the com­mu­nity col­lege sys­tem is much more di­verse than the four-year schools, par­tic­u­larly the four-year schools that are known for comp sci.” He noted that “there is a def­i­nite di­ver­sity is­sue in tech, in par­tic­u­lar in cod­ing and com­puter sci­en­tists.”

Ap­ple has rolled out the cur­ricu­lum in Alabama, Ohio and Penn­syl­va­nia, among other states. “You want it to in­crease the di­ver­sity of peo­ple that are in there, both racial di­ver­sity, gen­der di­ver­sity, but also ge­o­graphic di­ver­sity,” Cook said. “Right now, the ben­e­fits of tech are too lop­sided to cer­tain states.” (Like Cal­i­for­nia.)

As we fin­ished up break­fast be­fore we headed over to Austin’s Cap­i­tal Fac­tory, an in­cu­ba­tor for tech star­tups where he would an­nounce the new cur­ricu­lum, I men­tioned a ques­tion that some in Sil­i­con Val­ley and else­where have asked: Is his fo­cus on jobs and speeches in front of U.S. flags a hint at some­thing big­ger? Af­ter all, Mark Zucker­berg’s name is now reg­u­larly bandied about in dis­cus­sions of po­ten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

“I have a full-time job,” Cook said. “I ap­pre­ci­ate the com­pli­ment,” he added with a wry look, “if it is a com­pli­ment.”

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