Published on: September 17, 2018by Kevin Coupe
I’ve read - and written - a lot of stories about Amazon over the years. It never occurred to me - ever - that it could or would be described as a “reincarnation of ancient evil.”
That’s a new one.
I read it in the Washington Post, which ironically, is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder-CEO of Amazon. (Then again, there are some politicians out there who think that the Post is the “reincarnation of ancient evil,” so maybe it is not so ironic after all.) The Post had a story about how the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, targeted Amazon the other day “in a denunciation of corporate greed and gaping inequality - themes that have become the stock in trade of the leader of the Church of England and former oil executive who has warned that the country is facing a ‘crisis of capitalism’ fueling extremism and ethnic tensions.”
The Post wrote that in a speech at the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress in Manchester, England, Welby said that the so-called gig economy, defined by temporary and independent work, as a modern manifestation of industrial-era oppression of workers.”
“The gig economy’s zero-hours contract is nothing new,” he said. “It is simply the reincarnation of an ancient evil.” And, Welby said that “Amazon’s business practices demonstrated the perils of lax economic rules justified in the name of flexibility and innovation.”
In some ways, Welby was using religious rhetoric to make the same case as Tennessee Ernie Ford - that it is tough to get ahead “when you owe your soul to the company store.”
The Post wrote that “the jeremiad by the leader of the Anglican Communion amounted to a stinging indictment of Amazon. His warnings were also more forceful than those offered by British lawmakers, who have long expressed concern about tax evasion and the harm done to U.K.-based businesses but have not enlisted the searing language used by the archbishop, who couched his critique in religious terms … Laden with religious imagery, the archbishop’s speech Wednesday - a celebration of the role of trade unions in seeking economic justice - was not narrowly focused on Amazon. But he used the company as the foremost example of a new sort of concentration of corporate power, characteristic of a bygone industrial age.”
In addition to being surprised by the intensity of the rhetoric, I was intrigued.
Now, I don’t think it would be considered disrespectful to suggest that Welby was, to say the least, preaching to the choir. If you’re going to make this case, best to do it front of an audience made up of organized labor.
The interesting thing about the story is that it ran around the same time that Bezos, in a session at the Economic Club in Washington, DC, suggested that “while big companies deserve to be scrutinized, politicians shouldn’t ‘vilify’ them.”
Good timing … since what Welby was doing strikes me as a first-class vilification.
Bezos made the argument that big business should not be reflexively vilified for being big, because they also have the ability to create big value. “All big institutions of any kind will be and should be scrutinized,” he said. “It’s not personal. It’s kind of what we want to have as a society happen.”
(No doubt thinking of his role as owner of the Post, Bezos also argued that US presidents also deserve to be scrutinized. He didn’t name anyone in particular.)
“There are certain things that only big companies can do,” Bezos told the Economic Club. “Nobody in their garage is going to build an all-fiber fuel-efficient Boeing 787.”
Or fund a space program, like Bezos has done. Or commit $2 billion as a starting investment to deal with the issue of homelessness and the challenge of early childhood education, as he did last week.
It’s complicated. It is a situation that resists oversimplification.
I think that to suggest that Amazon is simply a “reincarnation of ancient evil” is as wrong-headed as it would be to suggest that all clerics in all religions are corrupt because of the actions of a few; it may be that the behavior of some religious leaders creates questions about them exercising any sort of moral authority, but I suspect Welby would want us not to paint with too broad a brush.
To be fair, Amazon has created an enormous amount of value. For consumers, who now access to far more products than ever before, and who can take advantage of its convenience to spend time doing other things rather than shopping. For stakeholders, who have seen - rightly or wrongly - their stakes in the company multiply many times over. And for many employees, for whom Amazon has served as a place where (admittedly through crushingly hard work) they can realize their ideas, often moving on to create their own businesses, which in turn can create value for customers, stakeholders and employees.
Is Amazon perfect? Not by a long shot. I’ve argued here in the past, for example, that it would be refreshing if Bezos and Amazon would apply their disruptive tendencies to how their people are compensated and valued; Bezos, of course, has stated a preference for algorithms over human beings because “people are variable,” and it’d be nice to see him adjust that point of view and then back it up operationally.
But I find it laughable that some folks are arguing that $2 billion isn’t very much money when you’re the richest person on the planet - ever - with an estimated net worth of more than $160 billion. That’s easy to say, but come on - $2 billion is still two freakin’ billion dollars, and this is just seed money to get things started.
(Let me digress for a moment here. What Bezos is committing to philanthropy is about two percent of the total budget of the US Department of Education. Which is to say, hardly chump change. After all, Bezos also is running his own space program, spending about $1 billion a year on that. And, to put this in context, NASA has an annual budget of about $20 billion. Could he spend this money on other stuff, like higher wages? Sure. We all might make different decisions if we had that much money. But we don’t, he does, and it isn’t like he’s spending it on hookers and cocaine. Besides, there are plenty of so-called rich folks out there who suffer from callousness of the soul and poverty of imagination, and who have never spent dime one, much less $2 billion, on these kinds of pursuits … and they still don’t pay their people well, if at all. So can we give a little credit where credit is due?)
(Oh, and one other thing. Not only has Bezos given to other causes over the years - GeekWire notes that they include cancer research, a University of Washington computer science building, clear energy technology, children’s television and scholarships for the Dreamers, but he also spent $250 of his own money to buy the Washington Post. Speaking as a former newspaperman, I’m thrilled by his priorities…and the fact that he se seems to have started a trend. Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, recently acquired a majority stake in The Atlantic, and just this weekend Time magazine was purchased from Meredith Corp. for $190 million by Marc Benioff, co-founder of Salesforce.com.)
The gig economy that Welby so glibly refers to as a “reincarnation of ancient evil” is, to be sure, a work in progress. For many leaders in this segment of the economy - people like Bezos and Tim Cook and Bill Gates - leadership that goes beyond their companies’ concerns has been a matter of evolution, of a dawning awareness about responsibility. In essence, time, for them, as been an Eye-Opener.
I’m trying not to be naïve about this. But, I choose to be optimistic about what all this means. I choose to see the possibilities in what a $2 billion philanthropic gift can build and create. In the end, I must admit, this is at least in part because I know Jeff Bezos is a Star Trek guy … and he sees the world and beyond in terms of frontiers to be boldly explored. It can be a place, as Jean-Luc Picard once said, where eventually “acquisition of wealth” no longer will be “the driving force of our lives,” and where the species’ goal will be to “work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”
It happens in small steps and even missteps.
But a “reincarnation of ancient evil?” Don’t think so.
- KC's View: