Like most college students, I am a pretty big fan of Amazon. It’s difficult to remember a time before one could acquire an econometrics textbook, episodes of a television show and a supply of a favorite snack at the same time in a matter of a few clicks. Certainly, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is due much credit for the extent to which he has revolutionized e-commerce. Amazon has grown to become the world’s largest Internet company by revenue and fourth largest by market capitalization, which certainly wouldn’t be possible without Bezos’ business acumen and willingness to disrupt the traditional way of doing things.
However, the recent intersection of two major milestones — Bezos’ total wealth approaching $115 billion and Amazon’s search for a second headquarters location — requires a more critical examination and calls Amazon’s corporate citizenship into question.
Let’s start with Bezos’ net worth, which totaled $114.7 billion following the opening of Amazon Go stores this month and led him to eclipse Microsoft founder Bill Gates as the richest man alive. Along with Warren Buffet, the CEO of Berkshire-Hathaway and the third-richest man in the world, Bezos and Gates collectively own more than $250 billion, which approximately equals the wealth of the bottom 50 percent of American households.
For additional context and comparison, $115 billion is 2.7 times greater than Russia’s total military budget for 2017. Bezos could afford 479,166 four-year Wake Forest tuitions at the current full price or pay for President Donald Trump’s idiotic border wall more than four and a half times. By the way, the fact that he can only pay for the wall four and a half times tells you how outrageously expensive the wall is. He also has the money to buy enough plane tickets to fly continuously between Washington, D.C. and Auckland, New Zealand for the next 171,719 years. Sure, Bezos is a brilliant man and his admirable innovation should be rewarded. But surely no one needs that borderline-appalling level of wealth. Considering the fact that Bezos can afford these absurdities, there is absolutely no excuse for the fact that liberal think tank Policy Matters Ohio recently reported that one in ten Amazon workers in that state are forced to rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Amazon and Bezos have been the beneficiaries of $125 million in tax breaks in Ohio, while Bezos continues to deny his Ohioan employees a living wage. Amazon is a crystal-clear example of the absurdity of the “trickle-down” supply-side economic policies which form the basis of the Trump administration’s recent tax cut.
Revelations about Bezos’s wealth coincided with Amazon’s selection of 20 candidate locations for its second headquarters. The new headquarters has the potential to bring its home city an additional 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in investment, and as a result, approximately 238 localities sought the opportunity, many using the promise of additional tax breaks. If Amazon does this right and acts with a spirit of corporate citizenship, it could bring a blighted city such as Newark an economic renaissance. However, the city that wins the headquarters prize risks damaging the property lots of its most vulnerable residents while only helping the already-affluent. Some of the 50,000 promised jobs will likely be high-tech positions requiring an advanced education and out-of-reach for many who are hurting economically. In addition, unless a city has an enormous reserve of surplus housing, Amazon-driven demand will inflate housing costs to the point where many current residents may be forced to move. Assuming that rapid gentrification accompanies the establishment of the new headquarters, as it did in Seattle, it’s concerning that Amazon could indirectly worsen existing economic inequality already present in American cities.
That being said, Bezos has done a great deal of good over the course of his career. Certainly, he strengthened the revival of the Washington Post, which was good for the field of journalism and good for democracy, as its new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” won’t let you forget. He also recently announced that he would send 1,000 Dreamers off to college. However, if he fails to consider the massive societal responsibilities inherent in his job and his amassed wealth, his legacy won’t treat him kindly.