Money Talks: Out of Both Sides of Its Mouth
Peter Goodman’s recent New York Times essay on Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff depicts a man who expects accolades for caring about and sometimes giving to social causes. Yet the corporation that pays Benioff $28 million a year doesn’t have a great track record of paying taxes, which is how we meaningfully fund our common priorities as a society.
As ITEP reported last year, not only did Salesforce avoid paying any federal income taxes in 2020 on its $2.6 billion in profits, but from 2018–2020, the company accumulated more than $4 billion in profits while receiving a total federal tax refund of $4 million over those three years. To receive this money back from the federal government, Salesforce cashed in on over $860 million in tax breaks — some of the very same tax breaks that The Business Roundtable, a group Salesforce is a member of, lobbied for in the 2017 Trump tax giveaway and are fighting to protect as it bashes Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
Goodman’s new book “Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World,” shows how Benioff embraces largely symbolic gestures, perhaps in part to distract us from the actual implications of his corporation’s behavior.
Take, for instance, Mr. Benioff’s apparent interest in easing homelessness in San Francisco, where Salesforce is headquartered. Silicon Valley pay packages (like Mr. Benioff’s $28 million annual haul) contribute to exorbitant housing costs that many cannot afford. Benioff contributed $7 million of his own and Salesforce’s money to a ballot measure initiative that will increase taxes on area businesses to fund expanded housing programs. The essay states this is likely to cost Salesforce $10 million a year in new taxes.
It’s a great public relations gambit. Big corporation paying money to have themselves taxed more! #TaxTheRich. But $10 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the $2.6 billion in profits Salesforce reported in 2020. And it seems odd to praise an effort to nudge up a local tax payment when the corporation works so hard to avoid paying the hundreds of millions we’d expect it to pay on its overall profits.
Mr. Benioff is neither the first nor the only corporate CEO or billionaire who has professed a desire to do good and contribute philanthropic dollars to make their communities better. But, as Goodman asks: Why is the wealthiest, most powerful country on earth dependent on the charity of a profit-making software company?
Placed in its proper context, Marc Benioff and his fellow CEOs must see how their delusions of gracious giving are more similar to the cartoon at the top than the image they’ve created in their own minds. But whether they ever come to recognize this or not, it is necessary that Congress, and the public that elects them, sees it. We should prioritize tax policies and a broader system of government that places the power and the resources to move society forward not into the hands of CEOs and plutocrats, but of the many who have the most at stake in making a more just society reality.