The Bezos backlash: Is "Big Philanthropy" a farce?

The Bezos backlash: Is "Big Philanthropy" a farce?

Jeff BezosPicture copyright
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Amazon owner Jeff Bezos was criticized by President Trump for "paying little or no taxes"

"Great fortune," said American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, "is great blessings for a community."

Undoubtedly, the beneficiaries of multi-billionaire philanthropic fund Jeff Bezos will agree.

The richest man in the world announced Thursday that he would spend $ 2 billion (£ 1.5 billion) of his fortune to fund a network of pre-schools and fight homelessness in America.

But far from universally applauded, the promise of the Amazon founder met with sharp criticism.

James Bloodworth, an undercover author who revealed the working conditions in the company's fulfillment centers, said there was something "ironic" about Mr. Bezo's plan.

"There are credible reports from Amazon warehouse workers sleeping in tents outside because they can not afford to rent houses with the salaries paid by the company," he told the BBC.

"Jeff Bezos may call himself a great philanthropist, but he will not release him from his responsibilities if Amazon workers continue to be afraid of taking toilet breaks and sick days because they fear disciplinary action at work."

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Reuters

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The treatment of Amazon employees has been highlighted by several politicians, including Bernie Sanders

Hypocrisy charges flooded social media, with many pointing out Amazon's efforts to lower its tax laws in the US and abroad.

Others emphasized Amazon's recent successful attempt to strike a bill in Seattle – the home of the online retailer's headquarters – to raise millions of dollars to ease the city's homelessness crisis.

For his part, Mr. Bezos, worth more than $ 150 billion, has done little to distance his philanthropic efforts from his company's business model.

"We will use the same principles that drove Amazon forward," he said in the statement announcing his fund.

"Most important will be a genuine, intense customer obsession.

"The child will be the customer."

The Carnegie Heritage

But the idea that business titans should apply the principles of their meeting rooms in public space is hardly new.

It was first introduced by Andrew Carnegie in 1899 in an essay titled The Gospel of Wealth.

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Andrew Carnegie is said to have separated 90% of his assets

The magnate, once the richest man in the world, outlined what he saw as the moral duty of the super-rich: "To consider all the excess revenue that comes to him simply as a trust fund to administer."

Business people, Carnegie said, are best placed to do this administration.

"The man of wealth thus became the sole mediator and trustee for his poorer brothers," he wrote, "entrusting them with their superior wisdom, experience, and capacity to manage something better for them than they themselves do or could do. "

When Carnegie died in 1919, it was estimated that he had divorced 90% of his assets in order to finance scientific research, pay teachers, build schools, and found more than 2000 public libraries.

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AFP

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The first Carnegie Library in Dunfermline, Scotland

His doctrine became the model for donations from other tycoons, including John D. Rockefeller, who saw no conflict between their attitudes to the economy – where they built monopolies and battered unions – and their philanthropic work.

It's a model that paved the way for the modern blessings of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg – whose charitable causes are different from the way they run their businesses.

At this year's annual meeting of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, Mr Buffett could not have been clearer.

"I do not think I can enforce my political views on the activities of our companies," he told assembled shareholders when he asked if he would part with the weapons manufacturers.

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Reuters

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Warren Buffett has drawn a line between his business practices and his policies

"Do not put a patch on cancer"

But according to Anand Giridharadas, Mr. Carnegie's approach has helped to create mass inequality.

Mr. Giridharadas, whose book Winners Take All thematizes the so-called "charade" of modern philanthropy, characterizes Carnegie's approach as "extreme taking followed by extreme giving."

The super-rich, he argues, stop "transforming the system they stand on."

Mr. Bezos' donation is admirable, he says, and it does not address the "deep and complex causes" of homelessness and poverty in the US – including Amazon itself, as the company has benefited from the new precarious employment world.

A good motto for Mr Bezos, he says, is: 'Do not ask what you can do for your country, ask what you have already done to your country.'

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Reuters

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Basketball star LeBron James recently announced that he was building a school and paying the tuition fees of the graduates

The approaches of the super-rich, says Giridharadas, are less daring than the companies that helped shape them.

"If you want to immerse yourself in public policy, you have the moral responsibility not to put a stop to cancer," he says, adding that Mr. Bezos might be working to influence politics.

One way to do this is to fight for a change in the law when it comes to corporate responsibility to shareholders. The bottom line is creating corporate structures that sacrifice some profits in favor of social well-being.

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Getty Images

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Homelessness has increased in Seattle, home of Amazon

Matt Kilcoyne of the free-market think tank, Adam Smith Institute, disagrees.

"Honestly, Bezo's biggest act of philanthropy is Amazon itself," he argues.

"Lower prices, more choice and competition have provided billions for bezos and billions for the hundreds of millions of customers he serves."

What's more, Mr Kilcoyne rejects any talk of the moral responsibility of the super-rich to give in a certain way.

"Jeff Bezos has the right to spend his own money at will.

"Lehnstuhl commentators may say that they know better than Bezos what he should spend his money on, but they should better try to convince him of their philanthropic cause than punish him for his election."

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