“I mean, what’s he going to do with it all. What can you spend all that money on?”
The question was asked of me by the finance director of a big UK bank who, while he admitted that he “got plenty of money”, was still simply staggered by what one of the former CEOs of one of its constituent parts had made – and was still making, through a truly vast pension. They were, at the time, a cause of some controversy given the grim road down which they’d led the company.
On Monday, shares in the online giant took on some rocket fuel and headed off for Mars, like Bezos presumably hopes his space exploration company will one day do. Having ended last week at $2,962, they finished the day just shy of $3,200, an all time high for the company. Bezos increased his net worth by $13bn in the process.
It’s been a hell of a year for Amazon, too. The company started it with a share price at $1,898, since which time it has gained nearly 70 per cent in the midst of a global economic crunch, by dint of being in the right place at the right time. When other retailers were forced to close, Amazon picked up the slack, busily fulfilling orders and in the process fuelling the vast personal economy of Bezos, who owns 11 per cent of the company and whose estimated $190bn personal fortune is now within sight of the GDP of Greece.
Given that he started Amazon from his garage, there are many who would hold him to be the poster boy for Western capitalism – a shining example of what can be done with a little moxie and freedom juice (and the Wall Street bucks that flow from an Ivy League education). In reality, he is a prime example of where it is failing. Countless businesses have crashed and burned as Amazon and Bezos have grabbed for themselves an ever larger piece of the shopper’s pound, dollar, euro or yen.
The compensation from the creation of people like him is held to be that a portion of their vast wealth will “trickle down” and make like better for the rest of us. But it doesn’t; it trickles up. When you have as much money as Bezos, more inevitably flows in your direction regardless of the economic conditions.
Bezos will never, in his lifetime, be able to spend what he has now, let alone what will be added to his pile by the time he’s done. Toys like yachts and private jets are among the pricier outlays for today’s billionaire about town. But put it this way: just that $13bn could buy British Airways owner IAG twice over, with enough change for a small fleet of yachts.
For those who argue that his wealth is not liquid, please. Were Bezos to find himself in need of cash he could raise it in the blink of an eye. Sure, shares go up and down. But even if Amazon lost half its value Bezos would still be staggering, stupendously rich.
But, say his defenders, you forget that he creates employment and – based in a country in which one in every five workers can’t find a job, and where food bank use is booming as a result – that’s valuable. True enough, but Amazon jobs are something of a mixed blessing. The labour issues at its vast fulfilment centres have so regularly generated negative headlines that it has been reduced to running advertisements featuring smiling, happy workers extolling their virtues. “Sure we have targets,” says one, acting as if they’re a breeze though reports coming out of the place suggest that a typhoon would be the better analogy.
And charity. What about the stuff he gives away? Yes, some donations have been made, big ones even. But compared to, say, Bill Gates, Bezos’ record is less than stellar. He has yet to sign the “Giving Pledge” in which the world’s mega rich promise to give back (although his ex-wife MacKenzie Bezos has). There is a better way to address the issues created by such excessive wealth than relying on people’s voluntary philanthropy. It is to listen to the likes of Abigail Disney and the other executives who’ve signed up to join Patriotic Millionaires, which advocates for higher taxes on those who can afford them.
If wealth like that which Bezos holds were progressively, and properly, taxed it might genuinely trickle down, through social programmes, health services, improved educational opportunities; all of which are in danger as a result of the blows to the world’s exchequers that the pandemic has delivered.
You could easily double Bezos’ current bill and he would still be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, still have more money than he could ever possibly spend, still probably buy British Airways and all its jets twice over.
“Pretty wild that raising taxes on the rich is STILL controversial during a pandemic that allowed Jeff Bezos to “make” $13 billion in one day,” the Patriotic Millionaires opined in a recent tweet.
Yes, it is.
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