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?

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.”

Indeed, it’s almost impossible to disentangle Bezos-the-man from Amazon itself. The company runs on his mantras, known internally as “Jeffisms” and presented to the public, on Amazon’s website, as a list of 14 principles, like “Customer Obsession,” “Bias for Action,” and “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit.” Customer obsession may be the most important of this bunch. In practice, it translates, as Bezos noted in a recent conference appearance, to three elements: low prices, convenient shipping, and unlimited selection. But it also has a metaphysical character, undergirding Bezos’s own sense of what Amazon should be: it exists to satisfy the whims of its customers, to make retail cheap and frictionless.

For customers, this might seem like a late capitalist fever dream — just say what you want and your Alexa will bring it to you — but for the hundreds of thousands of people who work in Amazon’s fulfillment centers and deliver its packages, it means something far more menacing. Tales are legion of the immiserated state of Amazon’s blue-collar workforce, who, it’s widely acknowledged, exist as a kind of stopgap, to be eventually replaced by machines. In the meantime, workers are expected to act like machines, as software guides them almost inch-by-inch through Amazon’s warehouses, commanding them to pluck objects from their shelves and send them onto the next step in the shipping queue. (As if this pitiless surveillance were not enough, not long ago, Amazon filed a patent for a device that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers.)

The condition of Amazon’s warehouse workers stands in remarkable contrast to the treatment afforded to its customers. In placing their desires first and foremost, Bezos pleads a kind of humanitarian intent toward his customers: he wants the humble (paying) masses to get whatever they want. Who could oppose this? With its infinite reach and hundreds of billions in revenue, what’s good for Amazon must be good for America. In his campaign for HQ2, Bezos has promised to bring 50,000 well-paying high tech jobs to a metropolis near you. Little mention is made of Amazon’s far larger reserve army of temporary warehouse workers or that the company’s fulfillment centers — as these enormous facilities are termed — tend to drive down wages and don’t bring the permanent, decently paying jobs needed in blighted areas. Rather than strengthen communities and fill municipal coffers, Amazon’s new headquarters, like its fulfillment centers, will stretch local services and boost competition for housing. Customers may benefit from a few cents saved here and there, but the public will not.

It remains unclear whether Bezos recognizes the vast disconnect between the well-being of his customers, those who serve them, and their larger communities. The CEO is no stranger to public appearances but tends to be questioned by favorable interlocutors (his brother Mark feted him on-stage at one recent ideas festival). Self-doubt, much less healthy skepticism, doesn’t seem to be part of Bezos’s mental toolkit. Since the company’s early days, when all employees helped package customer orders, Bezos has expected unstinting enthusiasm for the Amazon mission. Early employees Susan and Eric Benson told Stone nobody would even take a weekend off. Eric also explained that “there were deadlines and death marches.” As Bezos told one all-hands meeting, “You should wake up worried, terrified every morning” about pleasing customers.

Bezos’s temper isn’t as explosive as some of his contemporaries, but he is known for pushing employees beyond their limits. As one anonymous employee told Stone, “If you’re not good, Jeff will chew you up and spit you out. And if you’re good, he will jump on your back and ride you into the ground.” For this behavior, he, like his fellow industry moguls, is feted as a savvy executive who treats workers as “expendable resources” while emphasizing hyper-rational thinking, efficiency, and the promotion of the company’s performance at all costs.

Advancing Amazon’s interests has meant, since day one, having a skeptical attitude toward taxation. Simply put, the company has a long history of tax evasion; it guided much of its early history, including the placement of fulfillment centers, during a period when the company was still years away from making profits. While Amazon has since come to agreements with many states about paying sales tax, Bezos has long viewed it as an unnecessary tariff. “We’re not actually benefiting from any services that those states provide locally,” he said during a 2008 shareholders meeting, “so it’s not fair that we should be obligated to be their tax collection agent.” Of course, Amazon’s fulfillment centers — the company’s lifeblood and circulatory network — depend on electricity, roads, and other essential services underwritten by sales tax. And its competitors, from Walmart to local small businesses, both collect sales tax and rely on the services it helps furnish.

But all this, perhaps, is to be expected. A billionaire’s relationship with taxes is about that of a vampire’s with daylight. And now that Bezos has won the game of life, he has an opportunity to dispense with his fortune in ritualistic fashion, donating it to a range of civically minded nonprofits — tax-free, naturally — and earning the plaudits of an admiring public. Like fellow billionaires Zuckerberg, Gates, and Buffett, it is time for Bezos to prostrate himself and claim that years of cutthroat capitalism were all leading to this moment where he might shovel his billions into the coal furnace of philanthropy and emerge cleansed. Or at least, that’s the comforting narrative arc that’s been devised for today’s billionaires, particularly in tech.

In truth, Jeff Bezos has shown little interest in putting his billions toward the common good. (If he had, perhaps paying taxes would have been a good starting point.) He has repeatedly expressed an intention to help save the world but claims, with a tech mogul’s typical messianism, that he will do it through building great companies. Obsessed with rockets and space since he was a child, Bezos sees Blue Origin, his rocketry firm, as the key to cementing his legacy. As he’s explained, “our vision is millions of people living and working in space.” He believes that it’s only by getting off the planet that we can save this one. “We need to go into space if we want to continue to have a growing civilization.” According to Bezos’s plan, all heavy industry will one day move into space, leaving Earth with a pristine environment. While he is working, like Elon Musk, to create reusable rockets, Bezos disagrees with the notion that humanity’s future will be on Mars or some other planet. “I don’t like the Plan B idea, that we want to go into space to have some sort of backup planet,” he said. “Believe me, this is the best planet. There is no doubt: this is the one you want to protect, This is the jewel.”

That Bezos will look to space, with its futuristic time horizon, is consistent with his character. He has frequently emphasized long-term thinking, and it has been credited with his stewardship of Amazon through years of losses and skeptical analyst reports. Whereas other companies think quarter by quarter, Bezos says, he is planning years ahead. One of his most famous projects is an investment in a strange, complex clock meant to last 10,000 years, which is being built on Bezos’s property in Texas. The clock, devised in part by Stewart Brand, a kind of counter-cultural guru for tech elites, is meant to be nothing more than a symbol emphasizing long-term thinking.

Yet if Bezos is obsessed with the long term — not surprising, perhaps, in a field where some of his contemporaries are actually researching how to live forever — he can occasionally show curiosity in the here-and-now. Last summer, Bezos turned to Twitter to solicit suggestions for charity work, explaining that he’d like to see results “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” It was a rare public expression of philanthropic interest for the world’s richest man, and he received thousands of responses about public health, refugees, climate change, and other issues. Bezos’s previous contributions to charity had been relatively paltry, amounting to about $100 million to Princeton (Bezos’s alma mater), a museum in Seattle, and other entities. Since his public solicitation, Bezos has remained fairly quiet, save a $33 million gift to a college fund for Dreamers. (The Bezos Family Foundation, which Jeff Bezos sits on the board of, is largely funded and run by Bezos’s parents.)

Bezos’s Dreamers donation harkens back to when Mark Zuckerberg, in September 2010, donated $100 million to Newark’s school system. The gift was in many ways generous and extravagant, while doing little to tackle underlying structural issues. Much of Zuckerberg’s donation, which amounted to about a tenth of the school system’s annual budget, went to expensive educational consultants and charter schools. As Dale Russakoff later wrote in The New Yorker, “decades of research have shown that experiences at home and in neighborhoods have far more influence on children’s academic achievement than classroom instruction,” so Zuckerberg would have helped Newark’s students more by lobbying for universal health care, publicly funded daycare, infrastructure investment, or an end to the drug war. Or he might have directly contributed to health clinics, daycare centers, food banks, and civil rights activists.

But these ideas — raising taxes, viewing the government as responsible to its people, engaging in overtly partisan issues — violate the modern plutocrat’s creed. Today’s moguls are charitable but “results-driven.” They speak of leaning in but not, in any meaningful sense, of social justice. Believing existing political institutions to be clumsy and inefficient, they dispense vast sums of money toward “innovative” solutions that invariably devolve public services into private companies (Amazon, for instance, sponsors a homeless shelter in Seattle). What they cannot abide, or simply don’t know, is that many of the answers to our problems were discovered by post-war social democracies seventy-plus years ago: rights to public transport, education, healthcare, housing, and employment.

Perhaps it’s mere coincidence that those countries, while prosperous, are not home to people like Jeff Bezos. They have not been blessed, to the extent we are in the U.S., with the dizzying highs and lows of unfettered capitalism. But if you view private wealth and the public good as tradeoffs, then Bezos’s $130 billion fortune is an obscenity. Having built his business by robbing the government till, Bezos will be twice praised for his entrepreneurial brio and for his magnanimity in giving away, well, whatever he decides to. Like 19th century robber barons, today’s tech titans atone their excesses by offering handouts to a public torn between admiration and resentment, between capitalist striving and the daily grind of precarity. But having grown up in an era in which our institutions seem rickety at best, in which government has failed time and again to maintain the trust of its constituents, our economic overlords might be excused for not creating libraries and universities, as Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and others did. Amidst the dubious triumph of neoliberalism, the welfare state was not the only casualty — a commitment to building and maintaining the public sphere was also lost. A broken society has forgotten how to repair itself. This generalized sense of crisis, it seems, has yet to provoke the political consciousness of the ultra-rich. Instead, Bezos and company offer only fantasies of space travel, along with rote tales of the greed and ruthlessness that follow their achievements.


Jacob Silverman is the author of Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection.