Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, is the richest person in the world. He obviously has remarkable expertise in starting and running a technology and retail giant. But when it comes to his philanthropy, Bezos is the personification of hubris and condescension, garnished with a lack of respect for democracy or expertise.
You may be wondering what Bezos did to earn my ire. After all, this fall he announced that he would be giving away $2 billion, which is an enormous gift by any measure. Let me explain.
First, Bezos demonstrates an utter disregard for democracy and the role of elected government. Earlier this year, Amazon threw its considerable weight into overturning a new tax approved by the Seattle City Council to combat homelessness. The would-be annual tax of $275 per employee for major employers was apparently more than Amazon, with its market valuation of $800 billion, felt it could afford. Amazon made it clear to Seattle’s civic leaders that, in retribution for the tax, it would cut back on proposed expansion plans in the city. The Seattle City Council caved and rescinded the tax.
I know that that corporations are not shy about throwing around their economic heft, and the threat to pull up stakes for greener and less-regulated and -taxed pastures has become an unfortunate thread in the American political-economic fabric. But that doesn’t make it right. And what happened a few months later shifts Amazon’s corporate power play to an Olympian level of hypocrisy. That’s because, having stiffed the City of Seattle, Bezos announced that he and his wife MacKenzie would be donating $1 billion, yes, to fight homelessness.
There’s an old joke that the definition of chutzpah is when a man, having killed his parents, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan. Well – no joke! – a close second would be the richest man in the world using all his power to defeat a tax initiative to reduce homelessness outside his corporate headquarters, only then to bask in laudatory attention for giving, through charity, toward that exact same issue. It’s doubly infuriating when the social problem has been caused in part by his company: after all, the high cost of housing in Seattle, and the resulting rise in homelessness, was in part a by-product of the astronomical growth of Amazon and other corporations. But corporate America has a habit of washing its hands by sending a few bucks to the charities that are fighting to correct the very problem the corporations helped cause. And corporate leaders, of course, grab a handsome tax deduction in the process. Instead of paying taxes, the get a tax deduction.
This phenomenon lies at the core of Anand Giridharadas’s bestselling Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Giridharadas writes convincingly about how the economic elite, at a time of rising wealth inequality, cause all sorts of damage in their business practices – underpaying employees and contractors, cheating vendors, unfairly crushing competition, abandoning communities (or pressuring them for tax waivers), devastating the environment, buying influence with politicians – and then attempt to whitewash their corporate predations though charitable giving. Giridharadas notes that today’s high-tech leaders, who have a strong libertarian streak, are particularly allergic to supporting governmental action through taxation. Bezos’s approach to homelessness bears that out: he wants to help, but on his terms, and elected officials (and democracy) be damned. As Giridharidas repeats through his book, the tech elite all claim to support change – so long as nothing actually changes. That is, they don’t want to do anything that would put their privileges at risk.
Second, Bezos dismisses expertise. Jeff and MacKenzie’s second billion-dollar investment will go to create “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.” The Bezoses add that the schools will be “Montessori-influenced” and, like Amazon, would be customer-centered, with the child as the customer.
Listen: I’m a huge advocate of high-quality early childhood education. I’m particularly supportive of efforts to strengthen preschools in underserved neighborhoods. But Bezos, in his effort to build his own network of schools, dismisses the potential of institutions already in place: the thousands of early childhood centers directed and staffed by smart and remarkably committed people who are deeply knowledgeable of the needs of developing children and age-appropriate activities and curricula.
These early childhood educators know that they’re doing. What are they missing? Money! After all, early childhood is the least-subsidized part of the American educational system. Public schools receive tax dollars. Universities receive donations, endowment income, and research grants. But early learning centers depend almost entirely on tuition payments from parents who are at the most financially stressed moment of their lives. Parents pay too much. Teachers get paid too little. Why? Because the schools don’t have money from other sources.
But who has money? Jeff Bezos. He literally has more than anyone else alive. A billion dollars spread across the early childhood field wouldn’t be transformational, but it would help quite a bit. And if Bezos were, indeed, to concentrate on low-income neighborhoods, he could do some real good. But he needs to discard all the first-tier, customer-centered, new-network-of-schools nonsense. If, indeed, the customer is the child, Bezos should give established, quality schools money to pay dedicated and knowledgeable, but grossly underpaid, teachers a living wage to keep them in the field. That’s what’s truly needed, not some high-tech billionaire creating his own network of schools based on his vaguely-sourced ideas of what might work with young children.
I’m not the only one feeling this way, of course. But as I’ve written before, there is a power imbalance between charities and the wealthy, between grantees and foundations. You won’t get money from Jeff Bezos by calling him arrogant. So I’ll do it for you.
To be honest, I don’t really like calling him out. I think Bezos means well. But he needs to recognize that he owes something to society beyond a tiny fraction of his post-profit cash. He needs to pay his workers better. He needs to pay taxes. He needs to clean up the messes his company creates. And he needs to show people who are experts in their fields the respect they deserve.
Copyright Alan Cantor 2018. All rights reserved.