Hubris

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 The Seattle City Council caved and rescinded the tax.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.

Say what?

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.

 

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15 Comments. Leave new

  • Great — and infuriating — post, Al!

    Reply
  • Ironic how, had you inserted the name Donald Trump in place of Jeff Bezos at any point, your post would have worked just as well. For some reason, America seems to love (and reward handsomely), greedy, power-hungry, belligerent, narcissistic, bullies. I always believe that pendulums swing but this one has a long way to go, Al.

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  • Your comments are right on. And I appreciate reading a piece that is so well written. You make it look easy.

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  • Brilliant, as always.

    But, as my brilliant wife, Carolyn Edwards, has been teaching me, there’s method to the “alternate education stream” madness — Bexos is likely invested in the tools of these programs, like books, software and alternative tech.

    So he’s really donating to himself.

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  • Al, it’s fine to criticize Bezos but I don’t think he is a hypocrite to prefer and support a philanthropic as opposed to government program to alleviate homelessness. As you write: “He wants to help, but on his terms, and elected officials (and democracy) be damned. “ This isn’t hypocrisy. It is a reflection of his ideology which favors smaller, less powerful government. That may be anti-government but it is not anti-democratic, any more than Bezos’ substantial contributions to favor legal, gay marriage were anti-democratic.

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    • I do enjoy our exchanges, Marc! And I know you’re a careful and thoughtful reader and writer on this subject.

      I think it’s a bit reductionist to say that Bezos isn’t anti-democratic, but simply in favor of smaller government. I kind of think he sees government as something to be muscled around. The whole Amazon pitch for HQ2, wherein a couple of hundred metropolitan regions spent gobs of money to make their case for Amazon to set up shop there — well, I found that outrageous. Certainly, it was great for the consultants to whom the local and state governments paid tens of millions of dollars to put together proposals that Amazon never really was going to consider. And, of course, central to each pitch was the understanding that there would be huge tax incentives for Amazon to settle there. All of which leads me to believe that it’s not so much that Bezos is in favor of smaller government as that he wants governmental entities to make life easy for him and for Amazon, and that he just doesn’t like paying taxes. (Though he’s happy to get tax deductions for charitable gifts.)

      Meanwhile, I have to give Bezos credit for buying and generously funding the Washington Post. That’s not a charitable endeavor per se, but it’s proving to be critically important to the common good.

      Best to you always, Marc. I imagine this isn’t the final word on this! Al

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  • In this piece, Al, you have reached new heights of absurdity! I’ll touch on just a few elements:
    – You treat Amazon and Jeff Bezos as if they were one and the same. Bezos owns roughly ONE-SIXTH of Amazon!! He has an obligation to run Amazon in the best interest off ALL its shareholders.
    – Seattle’s $275 per employee tax was just plain dumb. If you ran a high power investment banking firm with 100 employees who averaged annual compensation of $500,000….. and I ran a car detailing business with 100 employees who averaged annual earnings of $40,000; your business would have an annual payroll of $50 million and mine $4 million. But we would both pay the same Seattle homeless tax!! Apparently, that makes sense to you, Al.
    – News organizations like the Washington Post are critically important to maintaining our democracy which is under attack repeatedly by those who would have us believe a free press is ‘An Enemy of the People’. Hats off to Jeff Bezos for his willingness to preserve this critically important element of our Free Press!
    – Al, you have repeatedly excoriated Donor Advised Funds….. despite the fact that the percentage of assets distributed from those funds annually is far high than the percentage distributed by private foundations.
    – Now…. we learn from you that the Bezos’ TWO BILLION DOLLARS in charitable donations is an act of arrogance…. because they did not direct those funds as YOU (in your infinite wisdom!) would have decreed.

    Wow!!! Talk about arrogance!!!

    Reply
    • Well, Norm: One thing for sure is that I don’t have to worry about you making your feelings known.

      I would be happy to acknowledge the validity of some of your points, and rebut others, later. But for now I feel the need to ask that you tone down the rhetoric. Please focus on critiquing my opinions (which I welcome — you know I always have) and please do not undertake ad hominem attacks on me as a person. Phrases like, “you have reached new heights of absurdity!” and “YOU (in your infinite wisdom),” go after me as a person, and not my opinions. You’re telling me that I’m dumb, not that my opinions are; that I’m arrogant and out of touch — not that my opinions are wrong.

      This wouldn’t bother me nearly as much if these comments came from someone I didn’t know, but, because we have been acquaintances for years, that kind of rhetoric is a bit harsh and, frankly, hurtful. I certainly know that in forming your opinions you do so earnestly and with the best of intentions, drawing from your life experiences. I ask that you grant me the same courtesy.

      So perhaps the next time, instead of telling me I am reaching new heights of absurdity (exclamation mark), you could say that, in making my case, I went way overboard. I would be much more willing to engage you in a discussion about the issues. But I really don’t want to defend my integrity on my own blog.

      If you’re ready to tone down the personal attacks, Norm, I’d be happy to respond to your critiques. I can even let you know in advance that I see some merit to your points, which is not surprising: you’re a thoughtful guy, and you bring a point of view that is both different from my own and entirely valid. But I have a hard time reacting to your over-the-top, disrespectful rhetoric. If you can tone it down a bit, we can have a good discussion. Do let me know if you’re willing to discuss this in a calmer way.

      Thanks.

      Al

      Reply
  • And this just in: Virtually all the corporate leaders in Seattle have signed a letter supporting a new effort to create a “homelessness system redesign” for the city and county. Notably absent from the list of sponsors: Amazon. https://kingcounty.gov/~/media/elected/executive/constantine/news/documents/Governance_Support_Letter_.ashx?la=en

    Reply
  • Loretta Prescott
    December 21, 2018 12:48 pm

    Amazon is worrisome for many reasons, but our free market economy created the opportunity for it and so now we are left to police it. I hadn’t thought about the scheme to create a scenario where big business is able to take a tax deduction for charitable giving after manipulating govt in order to pay fewer taxes. It’s infuriating.
    I have some thoughts on my new city relative to giving I’d like to share. I’ll email soon. Happy New Year!

    Reply
  • More about Bezos’s preschool program: He has since named a guy named Mike George to run the billion-dollar pre-school initiative.

    Is Mr. George someone with early childhood expertise? No. Is he knowledgeable about running a network of schools? Does he have expertise in administering nonprofits? No, and no. Rather, he’s the guy who ran the Amazon app store and then oversaw the Alexa program. You know, the device where you say, “Alexa, what’s the weather in New York City today?” His one clear qualification is that he’s an Amazon guy and a Bezos loyalist.

    There’s a striking parallel with the Trump White House, where anyone with expertise and an opinion gets flushed away, and someone who is a loyalist is put in his place.

    Anyway, here’s the link to the article about Mike George. It’s as though Bezos read my piece and set out to prove me right.

    Al

    Reply

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