Despite having wealth so vast that it is a challenge even to comprehend its magnitude, Jeff Bezos has long been known as one of the world’s stingiest billionaires. He was the only one of the world’s top five billionaires not to sign Warren Buffett’s “Giving Pledge,” and for a long time limited his charitable activity to such idiosyncratic gestures as giving away free bananas on the streets of Seattle. He lives extravagantly, having bought the largest private residence in Washington, D.C., a 27,000 square-foot megamansion, in addition to many other homes. Bezos has previously expressed little interest in charity, saying that instead he plans to spend his fortune on establishing his own private space program. “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel,” Bezos said (“the only way” being a fascinating phrase here).
Lately, however, whether because his winnings have also purchased him a functioning heart or (more likely) because Bezos realizes that his status as a cartoonish villain could hurt Amazon’s growth, Bezos has starting giving out a bit of cash here and there. He started drawing up plans for a network of schools where “the child will be the customer,” whatever that means, and has just publicly announced that he has given $100 million on various anti-homelessness charities.
I am not very impressed by billionaires making large public donations to things, for a very simple reason. If you have billions of dollars, there is only so much “luxury” you can buy yourself. You can buy five houses, as Bezos has. But after a certain number of houses, it becomes impossible even to visit them all. Anyone who has played the game where you try to spend Bill Gates’ money knows that it’s not actually easy to come up with ways of frittering away billions upon billions of dollars even if you are extremely selfish. Once you have everything, though, there is still one thing you can spend your money on: power. Sure you’ve got a 27,000 square foot house. But you also have something else, something even more satisfying: You get to decide who lives and who dies. If you give a person who urgently needs medical treatment the money to pay for it, they will be in your debt forever. You will sacrifice nothing, and you will get to play God by going around bestowing your favor on those who please you.
That’s basically what I think philanthropists are doing. They’re just enjoying the power that comes with having a lot of money. Always think of billionaires like you would think of feudal lords. If a lord wanders the land handing out trinkets to his flatterers, do we think of him as a good person? No, of course not. Philanthropy is not “selfless.” You give up nothing and yet you get something in return: People tell you you’re a wonderful person. Who wouldn’t want that? It’s just purchasing a good reputation.
Now, if the lord gave up all his riches and distributed them to the peasants, and didn’t put out a press release about it but simply went to live as a normal person, we might think of them quite differently. That might be admirable: They were given great power over other people, and instead of wielding it, they gave it out to others to decide for themselves how to use it. Instead of the lord’s idiosyncratic preferences (bananas for all!) guiding what would happen in society, resources were divvied up democratically.
Let us talk briefly about what it means for a billionaire of Bezos’ wealth to give away $100 million. It is difficult to understand what billions of dollars really mean, but it’s been pointed out that if you want to think about this in relatable terms, Bezos giving away this sum is basically the equivalent of a person earning $50,000 giving away $45. (Similarly, Michael Bloomberg made the largest one-week political ad buy in history, spending $31,000,000 or 0.06 percent of his net worth. For a family with the median net worth of $97,300, this would be $55.86.) These comparisons are actually misleading, though, because they overstate how much Bezos or Bloomberg is “giving up.” This is because of diminishing utility, familiar from economics 101. The difference in satisfaction between having zero cookies and one cookie is much greater than the difference between one cookie and two cookies, and by the time you get to the difference between 10 cookies and 11 cookies, it’s negligible.
A person’s first few dollars are very valuable. If a homeless person finds $10 on the ground, it will be significant to them. $10 does not mean the same thing to Jeff Bezos, however. In fact, it might not even be worth him pausing to pick up the money. So it’s not necessarily right to say that Bezos giving $100 million is the equivalent of you giving $45. $45 is a lot to you if you earn $50,000 a year. For you, if you give the $45 to charity, it could be one nice restaurant meal that you have to give up that year. Bezos, on the other hand, will never have to give up a nice restaurant meal ever in his life. So: Instead of saying that Bezos giving $100 million is like you giving $45, it’s more accurate to say that Bezos giving $100 million is like you giving… nothing. Absolutely nothing. It makes no difference to his life. He has sacrificed zilch.
I think this is important: We should not conspire in the belief that rich people are being good when they do charity work. They are doing something that is in their interest, for several reasons: (1) It lets them play God and essentially run society as they please (Bezos is interested in Montessori schools, so his schools are going to be Montessori. Not because that was decided democratically, but because being a billionaire makes you a kind of king. (2) People will flatter you and tell you how good you are. (3) It involves giving up absolutely nothing.
We on the left have contempt and scorn for billionaires who do this, in part because they are simply acting as private governments. Usually, they try to avoid paying taxes and will fight to the death before they accept any new forms of mandatory wealth redistribution—Amazon “crushed” a small tax in Seattle that was designed to help the homeless. What Bezos wants is not a democracy: He wants us to live in Bezosland, where the schools are as he designs them and more money is spent on his personal space travel than on housing. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are similar: Both were willing to spend money on education, if it was spent their way. This is not benevolence. It is megalomania, and should be treated accordingly.
The principle is simple. There should not be feudal lords making decisions for the rest of us. The fact that one individual can spend $100 million and not even notice is a problem. At a time when schools are crumbling and 4 million children go homeless each year, it’s despicable. It’s very important that when someone like Bezos, who makes money by working his employees to the brink, tries to buy “moral credits” on the cheap, we heap contempt on him. We cannot let people like this get away with what they’re trying to do, which is to soften our feelings toward them so that we will let them keep their status. They know that if the lord is evil, we will be more inclined to overthrow him, and if the lord appears good, it won’t be as easy to make the case that a feudal system is indefensible. But such a system is indefensible, whether or not the lord hands out trinkets. It’s difficult, of course, because to the recipients of these bribes they do mean a lot: These anti-homelessness charities might be transformed overnight by a donation that means little to Bezos, and many Walton Family-funded charter schools might actually be incredible places for the small number of poor children who get to go to them. It is important, though, that we be “resolutely ungrateful,” because we must raise our expectations. You do not get credit for doing something that wasn’t hard and still leaves you as the wealthiest person on earth. You do not even get partial credit. Bezos is the same person today as he was yesterday, and the fact that he has recognized that it is not in the interest of Amazon, Inc. for him to be universally loathed by a public that sees him for what he is does not mean that we should withhold our scorn. Rather, we should direct it toward him at a greater volume than ever before.