Jeff Bezos Could Pay Seattle’s Homeless Tax in 3.5 Hours — But Won’t

Amazon CEO’s net worth is soaring. So is the number of homeless people dying in Seattle.

Paris Marx
Jun 21, 2018 · 5 min read

Jeff Bezos is a vile human being.

Yes, Amazon is incredibly convenient, but that doesn’t mean the richest man in the world should be lauded with praise when we know that convenience is made possible by workers making low wages while being pushed to their breaking points in sprawling warehouses where Amazon often refuses to install air conditioning, and where even white-collar employees are held to “unreasonably high” standards.

And that’s before even considering Bezos’ recent decision to hold Seattle city council hostage until they repealed a $275 per-head tax on large businesses to provide $47 million a year for programs to help the city’s soaring homeless population — many of whom are on the streets because of the high housing prices that Amazon’s growth has brought to the city.

Let’s look at the numbers.

Jeff Bezos’ unfathomable wealth

Earlier this year, Jeff Bezos’ net worth surpassed $100 billion. But he hasn’t stopped there.

The billionaire’s net worth has already increased by another $40 billion in 2018, meaning he makes about $230,000 every minute. Meanwhile, the average Amazon worker made $28,446 in 2017, which would come to about $12,000 so far this year. That means Bezos makes more every minute than the average Amazon employee makes in eight years.

Jeff Bezos makes more every minute than the average Amazon employee makes in 8 years.

To put it in perspective, Indiana University estimates that the average high-school graduate earns $910,000 in their lifetime, while the average person with a bachelor’s degree makes $1.8 million. That means that it would take 43,956 lifetimes for a high-school graduate to make what Jeff Bezos made in the first five months of 2018. It would take someone with a bachelor’s degree 22,222 lifetimes.

Is this the sign of an economic system that’s working efficiently? I don’t fucking think so.

Meanwhile, Bezos is teasing some minor philanthropic investments after saying he didn’t know what to do with all his money and that “[t]he only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it.”

Let’s unpack that. Bezos can’t even maintain the myth of meritocracy, framing his wealth not as something that was rightfully earned, but as “winnings” — he won the jackpot, now he’s wondering what to spend it on. And even though homeless people are filling the streets of his city, he refuses to look down from his office tower to help solve the growing divide his company is fueling, but has instead turned his eyes to the stars — no poor people up there!

His priority isn’t something noble like ending world hunger or, say, ending homelessness; no, the only way he can see to spend his billions is on getting the tech ready for when his wealth buddies need to flee the planet after their workers (and those who’ve lost their jobs to automation) finally revolt. If this doesn’t make the case for a maximum income, I don’t know what does.

In her critique of philanthrocapitalism in The New Prophets of Capital, Nicole Aschoff explains how the Gates Foundation approaches their philanthopic work:

Even though poor people need more than wealthy people, there is no incentive to meet their needs because the needs are not coupled with the ability to pay. Thus, the Gateses contend that poor children are dying from disease and malnutrition, or not succeeding in school, because capitalist markets are not serving them.

In short, unless there’s a profit in helping in the poor, fuck ’em. That’s exactly why disadvantaged people need public assistance: we’ve built a system where all the benefits go to a small class of ultra-rich people who have no interest in helping unless they get something out of it. But the benevolence of billionaires not a good foundation for good social policy.

Seattle’s dire need for homeless support (thanks, in part, to Amazon)

Amazon’s growing footprint in Seattle, paired with the influx of tech workers employed by the ecommerce giant and other large tech companies, has caused housing prices and rents in the city to soar by 13.5 percent in 2017 alone.

Meanwhile, Seattle declared a state of emergency over its homeless population in 2015, which was the third-largest homeless population in the country by 2017, despite Seattle being the 18th-largest city. The homeless population increased another 4 percent in 2018 to 12,112 people — 6,320 of whom had no shelter.

As the homeless population has soared, so too has the number of homeless people dying on the streets of Seattle — it hit a new record of 169 people in 2017; more than double the number of deaths six years ago.

Homeless deaths in Seattle hit 169 people in 2017 — more than double the number six years earlier

The soaring cost of housing in Seattle, which is a result of Amazon’s rapid expansion, has priced more people out of their homes, forcing them into shelters and onto the streets. The city doesn’t have the resources to house or help all of these people, and being homeless can cause many negative health outcomes, which could increase the risk of death.

Seattle solution and Amazon’s threats

To try to get this crisis under control, Seattle proposed a head tax of $540 per employee for companies making more than $20 million to raise $75 million to fund affordable housing and programs to help homeless people, until Amazon threatened to stop development on a planned office tower. In response, the city slashed the head tax to $275 per employee to raise $47 million.

But that still wasn’t good enough for Jeff Bezos and a number of other wealthy CEOs. They funded a campaign to repeal the tax, and, a month after it was passed, Seattle city council voted 7–2 for its repeal, with no new source of money to address the dire circumstances of homeless people in the city.

Let’s put that into perspective. Seattle was trying to raise $47 million to fund housing programs, of which Amazon would have paid about $12 million. Amazon’s CEO is worth about $140 billion — $40 billion of which he’s gained in about five months. Bezos’ net worth increases by about $230,000 every single minute, which means that it takes him about three-and-a-half hours to make what Seattle wanted to raise in a year to help the homeless people who are dying on the streets because of the city’s soaring rents, caused, in part, by Amazon. Alternatively, Bezos would earn enough in just 52 minutes to cover Amazon’s $12 million share of the tax.

Bezos earns the $47 million Seattle wanted to raise for homeless support in less than 3.5 hours

Talk about not being a good corporate citizen, or just a good citizen. Period. Talk about not giving a damn about the city and the people who aided you on your path to success, domination, and billionairedom.

People like Jeff Bezos don’t deserve a billion dollars, let alone 140 times that. No one does. And what happened in Seattle shows how the pursuit of the almighty dollar corrupts any bit of decency that may once have existed in someone’s heart.

$12 million — the amount Amazon would have paid for the head tax — is less than 0.4 percent of the $3.03 billion in profit that Amazon reported in 2017.

How can you not feel disgusted?

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

Paris Marx

Written by

Socialist, traveller, urbanist. MA Geog, McGill. I write critically about tech and cities, and curate the Radical Urbanist newsletter:

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

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