Not everyone was celebrating the philanthropy plunge of the world's richest man. Is it him or the times? Both.
If Jeff Bezos expected much love or even appreciation for the $2 billion he pledged to address homelessness and establish preschools in low-income areas, the world’s richest man was quickly disabused.
News stories pointed out that this was only 1.2 percent of his wealth, far below the philanthropy given by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
Benyamin Appelbaum, a correspondent for The New York Times, tweeted, “It’s kind of like taxation, only he’s giving less money and getting more praise.”
Well, not from Marina Hyde of the Guardian newspaper.
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In a pen-warmed-up-in-hell column, she compared Bezos to corporate bad guys in such dystopian movies as “RoboCop” and “Total Recall.”
She began, “Always a pleasure to hear from rejected (director) Paul Verhoeven villain Jeff Bezos, who this week announced an initiative designed to cast him as Earth’s first trillion-dollar sociopath.”
She recycles the widely believed narrative of the left that Amazon single-handedly killed the Seattle jobs tax.
In fact, this kooky initiative out of the City Council was widely unpopular and would have hurt the economy (which generates taxes for social services). It’s also highly debatable that Seattle needs even more money to make constructive efforts on the diverse conditions that are lumped under the term “homelessness.”
Hyde was more on target as she continued: “The second way (to improve) was by simply paying his own low-income workers better. As the old saying goes, charity begins in aisle 89 of the Amazon warehouse, where workers are so terrified of being docked points for nipping to the bathroom that they’re pissing in bottles.”
Amazon adamantly denies that workers lack adequate restroom breaks. But the wage situation is on target.
Last year, Amazon disclosed that its worldwide median pay was $28,446 (the midpoint, with half of employees making more and half less).
As my colleague Matt Day pointed out, surveys show that relatively few of the company’s 566,000 employees made the six-figure salaries paid to technologists (Seattle, with 45,000 high-paid workers, is a big winner). In most places, an Amazon job is in a warehouse, paying between $11 and $16 an hour in the United States.
Consider Phoenix, a low-wage metro with multiple Amazon warehouses. Using the Pew Research Center’s calculator, an employee in a two-person household with one making Amazon’s median wage and the other not working outside the home would fall into the lower income tier there.
An Amazon spokesperson responded: “Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs last year alone. These are good jobs with highly competitive pay and full benefits. In the U.S., the average hourly wage for a full-time associate in our fulfillment centers, including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses, is over $15 an hour before overtime. That’s in addition to our full benefits package that includes health, vision and dental insurance, retirement, generous parental leave, and skills training for in-demand jobs through our Career Choice program, which has over 16,000 participants.”
The spokesperson also said the actual median U.S. salary for full-time Amazon employees is $34,123.
Either way, Bezos as CEO, 16 percent shareholder and brainiac of Amazon, could have done enormous good by pushing his board to raise wages for all employees, and by finding the key to making those “fulfillment center” jobs gateways into better-paying tech jobs. The moves would have been influential across the industry, too.
Still, $2 billion is big money for most of us. Bezos has been very late to the historic — and today almost unique — Seattle ethos of moneyed stewardship. Let’s hope this is a start.
Also, Bezos saved The Washington Post and funded the return to its former glory. The Post is doing the most consistently important journalism in this time of peril to the republic. Bezos deserves our admiration for this alone.
Unfortunately, these goods can’t be taken out of the context of this moment in history. Inequality is high and rising — a Digital Gilded Age.
The top 1 percent of Americans received 20 percent of national income in 2016, compared with 11 percent in 1980. The bottom 50 percent received 12 percent, compared with 20 percent in 1980.
Meanwhile, the progressive taxation that went along with a strong middle class has been replaced by repeated tax cuts — crippling investments in infrastructure and putting the safety net at risk. Corporate money floods politics. Dynastic wealth is rising as average Americans see little change in their paychecks.
Billionaires who are clever at one thing want to use their money in the vacuum of our depleted commons, assured that they are geniuses at many things. Their money sets agendas that may or may not be in the public interest.
No wonder many greet a $2 billion donation with surliness.
In the first Gilded Age, steel baron Andrew Carnegie’s Presbyterian upbringing and fear of hell caught up with him as he aged.
He gave away 90 percent of his fortune, establishing 2,800 public libraries as well as a major university. His giving ranged widely, from efforts to preserve peace to helping Booker T. Washington create the National Negro Business League during Jim Crow days
Carnegie wrote, “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced.”
So big philanthropy is hardly new.
In 2010, Gates and Buffett called on their peers to “publicly dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.” The Giving Pledge now has 184 signatories.
Bezos is not among them.