Save us from these self-appointed saviours
Published by The i paper (17th September, 2018)
There can be no doubt Jeff Bezos is an extremely impressive business operator. He has turned a website selling books into a retailing behemoth that bestrides much of the world, largely down to his own vision and remorseless focus on growth. As Amazon expanded so rapidly it has played a key role in changing the way we shop, disrupting sector after sector and reshaping the high street since starting up in Seattle 24 years ago. Earlier this month his firm became only the second in history to hit a stock market valuation of one trillion dollars.
In the process Bezos has become obscenely rich. The latest Forbes list put his personal wealth at an astonishing $112bn, making him the first person to exceed $100bn since the magazine began publishing such data. I once had dinner with him and Piers Morgan, finding him to be entertaining company who enjoyed our banter, and I admire his determination to protect the Washington Post newspaper. But he attracts huge flak, both from jealous rivals and over employment practices that have earned comparisons to exploitative industrial bosses from previous eras.
Now, like the great robber barons of the past, this cut-throat capitalist is seeking to clean up his image with a spot of philanthropy. Last week he announced he was giving $2bn to help the homeless and create a network of pre-schools in poorer communities. As usual with technology titans, his donation was dressed up in breathless language about infant children being ‘customers’ and following the same principles he adopted in business. ‘Where’s the good in the world,’ asked Bezos. ‘And how can we spread it. Where are the opportunities to make things better?’
These are, as he said, exciting questions. Some critics instantly carped, however, that this was just small change for Bezos. Then James Bloodworth, a writer who went undercover to expose the intense pressures on his staff, pointed out the irony of posing as a great philanthropist when your employees are terrified to take toilet breaks or days off sick. Others raised even more fundamental issues, pointing out that Amazon recently helped stop a Seattle tax hike intended to help the homeless.
Here lies the problem when these tech tycoons who have shot to the top of global rich lists seek to improve their images. Bezos is far from alone in spending a hefty slice of his fortune on helping the world. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg celebrated the birth of his first child by disclosing a $45bn gift for charity. Bosses of Google and Oracle are among others making massive donations. Most famously, Bill Gates is giving away much of his cash to good causes, helping a rapacious businessman reinvent himself as a secular saint helping the world’s poor and sick.
It is, of course, preferable these plutocrats use slabs of their insane wealth to help those less fortunate rather than simply frittering it all away on fine art, fast cars and flash yachts. But this philanthropy, which tends to be announced in a burst of self-aggrandising publicity on social media, promotes the idea these are altruists using their great genius to solve the world’s problems. In reality these donations merely symbolise the arrogance, delusions and selfishness that plagues Silicon Valley.
The reality is Bezos, Gates and Zuckerberg, like so many of their multi-billionaire peers in the technology world, gained their unprecedented wealth by running firms that exploited the digital revolution to dodge tax and avoid borders. This drove up profits, much of which ended up in their pockets and now allows them to pose as good people in the global community. And having subverted Western democracies, drastically reduced state revenues and weakened public services, they now claim to have answers to some of the most pressing societal issues.
This is grotesque hypocrisy. Sure, it is great they are giving away so much money – but this is on their terms rather than through the collective will of government like the rest of us. They decide the projects to support and causes deserving of their cash, subject to the whims of their own interests and devoid of accountability. Gates is so brazen he even tours the world telling countries to spend more money on his pet aid projects, despite having run a firm used as a case study for a Congressional investigation into tax avoidance when he was in charge. Meanwhile Amazon tripled pre-tax profits last year but saw its tax bill fell from £7.4m to a pathetic £4.6m.
These people might be smart geeks and sharp entrepreneurs but this does not mean they can run public services. Donald Trump is merely the latest business leader to expose the giant gulf between running a company and running a country. Eight years ago Zuckerberg gave $100 million – doubled by other donors – to turn schools in one New Jersey town into ‘a symbol of educational excellence’. But his efforts failed to meet their proclaimed goals, wasting $20m on consultants while exposing the gap between self-appointed saviours from outside and the people actually responsible for pupils such as parents, teachers and local politicians.
Bezos asked valid questions last week about how to make the world a better place. But he will find the answers uncomfortably close to home. If he really wants to help then Amazon should start paying its fair share of tax, thereby doing its bit to relieve the growing pressures on public services. Governments, after all, have to support unfashionable causes such as services for disabled, elderly and mentally ill people as well as nurseries. Instead politicians seem frozen as technology transforms our world while these tycoons launder their images and help corrode our democracies.