The Dichotomous Existence of Jeff Bezos

The enigmatic tech oligarch has been all over the news lately. Some thoughts…

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Photo: Getty Images

e’s one of the most admired and studied men in the world — and one of the most viscerally hated. He is an entrepreneur who has amassed wealth unprecedented in human annals — while many of his employees struggle to make ends meet. He almost singlehandedly revolutionized the e-commerce industry — yet at times risks cannibalizing it.

He is Jeff Bezos.

At the very mention of Jeff Bezos, most people seem to have an instinctive reaction. Whether you’re the President of the United States using playground name-calling techniques, a sleazy conspiracy magazine using stolen private messages for leverage, or an average person who uses Amazon to buy presents every holiday season, you probably both know who Bezos is and have a gut reaction to him.

In my view, there is no singular “Jeff Bezos.” There is no one correct way to view him. Just like most things in life, there are multiple sides to the same story.

For example, take the view of some — that Bezos is an iconic entrepreneur, one who changed the landscape of doing business forever, who has taken what was once a fledgling online bookstore and created a global business empire.

The impact of Bezos goes far beyond that, though. Today, Amazon directly employs over 613,000 people. That’s 613,000 families who have a paycheck directly due to Bezos’s business acumen. Add into the equation the hundreds of thousands of jobs — manufacturers, truck drivers, small businesses who sell on Amazon — which rely on Amazon for their existence, and that number could swell to somewhere over two million.

That means the direct employment of Amazon is larger than Baltimore. Counting indirect employment, it reaches the size of Houston.

Consider in addition to these numbers the fact that Amazon is the second most-owned stock in mutual funds. This means that tens of millions of people’s retirement accounts rely, at least in part, on Amazon’s success. The difference between a decent retirement and a subpar one for millions of people rests on Bezos’s shoulders.

This is an unprecedented economic impact, and one that cannot be ignored. While Bezos’s wealth being in the neighborhood of $150 billion seems excessive, his impact — in both economic and social terms — far exceeds that number.

Alas, even $150 billion can’t buy happiness.

Bezos has come under fire in recent months because of working conditions across Amazon. Some employees have reported such strict time requirements that they eschew bathroom breaks and instead use bottles and boxes for their bodily functions so they can meet quotas. The average wage across the company hits $11 per hour — a full-time annual salary of $22,880 (before taxes, of course), which in Amazon’s Seattle headquarters is virtually nothing, considering the average rent in that city runs around $1,980 per month. That mean’s that an average Seattle Amazon worker would bring home negative $880 every year — before accounting for basic things like electricity, health care expenditures, student and credit card debt, gas, car payments, or food. (For some jarring context, the average rent in my hometown of Cincinnati is about $857 per month). This helps explain why Amazon is one of the largest employers of working people who still must rely on food stamps. [Note: Amazon recently announced it would be raising its internal minimum wage to $15 over the coming years, while reducing stock and benefit options].

On top of this, Bezos’s Amazon has been notoriously anti-union, and his reign at the Washington Post has not been much different. Taken in a vacuum, this would not necessarily spell doom — after all, unions are not inherently immune to corruption or malfeasance.

However, at a company like Amazon, where the majority of its activity is done in major cities like Seattle or New York — places known for absurdly high costs-of-living — this trend is a troubling one.

One can hardly blame Bezos for his constant insistence on efficiency given the ruthlessly cutthroat e-commerce industry. That’s the nature of business. But I would argue there ought to be a certain baseline of decent compensation and working conditions in a 21st Century company.

Do not misunderstand — this writer is staunchly pro-free market. I am also a believer in safeguarding individual dignity. Both of these principles suggest that as few people as possible should require the government dole simply to survive, which presupposes access to an honest, adequate income. Perhaps more importantly, the dignity provided by a good day’s work far exceeds any quantifiable economic metric.

This is all to say that Jeff Bezos himself is neither inherently all-good nor all-bad. He is, after all, a human being — flawed, even tremendously so. But aren’t you and I, too?

Rather than expending precious energy and time to shout our vigorous support or forceful opposition to Bezos, we might better use our resources in ways to construct a better world in which to live.

An important thing to remember: we mustn’t act out of envy, but rather out of care for our fellow citizens. Our concern should not be with Bezos’s wealth itself, nor how we can most effectively pry it from him. After all, he is just as entitled to his money as you or I are to our own. Instead of envy, we should act out of a radical empathy. We should create a culture so compassionate and empathetic that it would be unthinkable (insofar as it makes economic sense) to pay workers below a baseline level to provide for their families.

By the way, this does not just apply to Jeff Bezos or Amazon. It also applies to Google and Facebook. It applies to the miners in West Virginia, the immigrants working the farms in Arizona and New Mexico, and the shopkeepers in Ohio. Our culture must be so caring and so kind as to ensure a fruitful life for all of us.

I do not have all of the answers; your opinion is as good as mine. I’m skeptical of suggestions that a new tax or new government program will create any progress, and I am equally skeptical that Bezos will suddenly become super-charitable overnight.

That is why, as always, it is up to us — you and me. Though he may have a bigger house, nicer cars, and yacht-loads of Amazon stock, Jeff Bezos is a human, just like us.

Instead of wishing for a better world, let’s make one.

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Here lies an outlet for a young man’s meandering thoughts. | [ Ad Meliora ]

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