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The Billionaire Philanthropist

Jacob Silverman | Longreads | March 13, 2018 | 2,268 words
Posted inBusiness & Tech, Commentary, Nonfiction, Story

The Billionaire Philanthropist

It’s American tradition for CEOs to stockpile their wealth, avoid taxes, and participate in the theater of giving. Will Jeff Bezos make it scale?
Photo: AP Images

Jacob Silverman | Longreads | March 2018 | 9 minutes (2,268 words)

During the political chaos of the last year, one American institution has emerged stronger than ever. As its revenues soared, Amazon’s stock price has steadily ascended, cresting $1,500 and beyond. Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder and CEO, has experienced what The New York Times described as “what could be the most rapid personal-wealth surge in history.” His net worth hovers somewhere around $130 billion. His 400,000 acres in land holdings — much of it in west Texas, where Blue Origin, his space company, is based — makes him the 28th largest landowner in the country, according to the magazine The Land Report. By any standard, Bezos is one of the richest people to have ever lived, while Amazon exerts an impossible-to-overstate influence on a range of fields, from retail to publishing to cloud computing. As part of the highly touted HQ2 contest, twenty North American cities — finalists winnowed from a list of hundreds of applicants — are falling over themselves to offer tax breaks and other inducements so that Amazon will choose their municipality for its next headquarters. The power of Bezos, and Amazon, seems unbridled.

Reckoning with Bezos’s influence means approaching Amazon and its “notoriously confrontational” culture, as Brad Stone described it in The Everything Store, with a critical eye. Paging through Stone’s 2013 book on the ecommerce giant and its founder, and watching the many Bezos interviews available on YouTube, yields a picture of a smart, cunning, singularly driven executive with total confidence in his vision. Amazon is run on lean budgets, almost like a startup, in an atmosphere of high expectations and continual performance assessments that cause some employees to “live in perpetual fear.” Stone explains that if you’re seeking the source of this tense, high-achieving environment, you should look to the founder: “All of this comes from Bezos himself. Amazon’s values are his business principles, molded through two decades of surviving in the thin atmosphere of low profit margins and fierce skepticism from the outside world.”

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