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Hall of infamy: Jeff Bezos

Amazon
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Bezos has a net worth higher than the individual GDPs of 141 of the world’s countries.
Flickr/Photo by Grant Miller for the George W. Bush Presidential Center

JOB: Amazon Founder and World’s Richest Person

REPUTATION: A grinning bully

The popular caricature of the 19th-century robber baron financier in the pulp press of the day was a well-dressed fat guy with a leering avaricious expression. Not so Jeff Bezos, who is usually clad in comfortable jeans and loose-fitting shirt, presenting himself as the epitome of cool – slim and smirkingly self-confident. After all, those bad old days of narrow-minded evil capitalism are a thing of the past, right? Bezos is a visionary of the future, generous with his advice and cheque book – for appropriate causes. He is poised to lead us in finding high-tech (and profitable) solutions to the many dire problems facing humanity. And why not? Bezos has a net worth higher than the individual GDPs of 141 of the world’s countries.

So goes the script from the vast public relations team behind the megacorporation Amazon and its founder. The truth is, sadly, more mundane. Central to Bezos’ corporate mission is the human being as a customer, a simple buying machine – no longer a multi-dimensional citizen. Customer-satisfaction babble emanates from every pore of Amazon’s being.

The company has managed to work itself into a near monopoly position through its core business as a vast delivery machine based on high-tech warehouses and a contracted-out fleet of delivery vans. Due to its massive distribution network, hundreds of thousands of businesses are now dependent on its marketing platform for their survival.

From there it has spread into producing a range of techno-toys and ‘services’, some merely frivolous, others downright dangerous. These vary from a ‘smart home’ device that allows you to ask your virtual assistant Alexa to do everything from providing recipes, podcasts, weather and sports scores to interacting with home automation apps to turn on your lights or microwave. It also has a listening function which allows Amazon or others to gather information about you. Whether Alexa can keep you in touch with your innermost yearnings and ensure your happiness is not yet clear. But no doubt the 10,000 Amazon workers assigned to ‘enhancing’ Alexa are working on that.

Other Bezos innovations include sophisticated cloud computing (a lucrative contract with the CIA) and facial recognition software that various police forces are ‘testing’ with decidedly mixed results, including disproportionately mismatching black people as criminals. Amazon was forced to place a one-year moratorium on police use of its Rekognition system. But can the nightmare scenario of a high-tech totalitarianism be so very far off?

Bezos started Amazon in Seattle as a book distribution business. Initially it was all about capturing market share with little attention to profitability. Bezos may have learned this trick from Korean chaebols (family-owned business conglomerates) like Hyundai who pioneered keeping prices low to build market share. However, when Amazon got big enough it started to throw its weight around, by demanding ever-greater discounts from book publishers. This has now spread to the myriad other products it handles. After all, if you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere, right?

But the bullying tactics didn’t stop there: local governments had to come up with tax breaks and zoning deals, the non-unionized workforce was continually sped up to enhance productivity despite health and safety implications, and the contracted-out delivery fleet was put under a similar set of pressures. If anything goes wrong with Amazon-distributed (but not manufactured) products or a speeding (contracted-out) delivery van running over a hapless pedestrian, Amazon can simply shrug and say: ‘Nothing to do with us.’ Amazon is also renowned for its creative tax planning. In 2019 it paid tax at a rate of 1.2 per cent while the average US taxpayer paid 14 per cent. Bezos announced in February that he will step down as CEO, but will remain the power behind the throne as ‘Exec Chair’.

LOW CUNNING: Bezos loves to go all New Age about saving our precious, irreplaceable world while at the same time glorifying the very mindless ‘dynamism’ and ‘growth’ that is destroying it.

SENSE OF HUMOUR: Prides himself on it. Recently the 200-billion-dollar man (actually $196 billion but who’s counting?) opined that the Covid-19 pandemic was ‘the time to cherish the little things’. Like his own fortune growing by more than 60 per cent during that period.

Sources: The New Yorker; PBS; The New York Times; CBS News; The Guardian; Winter Watch; Business Insider; CNN; The Atlantic.

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New Internationalist issue 530 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2021 issue of New Internationalist.
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