*An Amazon spokesperson reached out to us with comments in response to this article, which are posted at the end of the article.
As Jake Johnson, the very capable staff writer for the brilliant site CommonDreams.org points out, Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com is off-the-charts wealthy. But he doesn’t just want to vacation and buy booze; he bought The Washington Post. He also is down there with Walmart as far as employee pay and level of satisfaction. Here is a brief look at the man, the myth, the shapeshifter, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the known universe. We are talking about uber-capitalism: outsize power and influence, self-concern and elitism. In the 19th century, political commentators and cartoonists would have depicted Bezos as a capitalistic “fat cat” and railed against his motives and apparent greed.
The title of Johnson’s piece is “As Bezos Becomes Richest Man in Modern History, Amazon Workers Mark #PrimeDay with Strikes Against Low Pay and Brutal Conditions.” Gulp. Sounds like something out of a book by a “muckraker”, exposing corporate largesse, repugnant levels of wealth, and outsize power and influence. Indeed, Amazon is indisputably a bad work environment, and is like Walmart in the amount of money its shareholders and directors and executive take home vs. employee pay and benefits.
Coming out swinging, the first paragraph in the withering criticism of Bezos reads as follows:
“Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has just become the richest man in recorded history—surpassing $150 billion in net worth—thanks to his business model of subjecting employees to low wages, brutal working conditions, and scant benefits, and on Tuesday Amazon workers throughout Europe are marking Prime Day by walking off the job in massive numbers to call attention to their plight.”
As tame and even rare as strikes are in the U.S., in Europe they are obviously part and parcel of the politico-economic landscape. Stefanie Nutzenberger, the spokeswoman for the German labor union Verdi, believes “[t]he message is clear—while the online giant gets rich, it is saving money on the health of its workers.”
Some websites are becoming dominant, and earning the ire (and massive fines) of the European Union (e.g., Google). Always on the lookout for outsize power in this crony-capitalistic system of ours, Robert Reich notes the following: “…this has given Google and Facebook unprecedented economic and political power over these critical networks. Meanwhile, rather astoundingly, Amazon has become the first stop for almost a third of all American consumers looking to by anything. Despite an explosion in the number of websites over the last decade, page views have become far more concentrated. While in 2001, the top ten websites accounted for 31 percent of all page views in America, by 2010 the top ten accounted for 75 percent. Talk about power.”
That, Dr. Reich, is exactly what I’m doing.
Bezos and Amazon are not the only corporation/billionaire to face criticism amidst egregious levels of political and economic power and influence. Walmart is taken to task in this FastCompany article about objectionable business practices and capitalism run amok. This is par for the course in this time and place; corporations have a remarkable level of power and influence over legislation, regulation, and employee pay and benefits. Unlike many other civilized countries. As Johnson describes Amazon:
“Strikes against Amazon’s notoriously appalling working conditions—which include forcing warehouse employees to skip bathroom breaks and urinate in bottles to meet the company’s unrealistic performance expectations—come as Bezos is coming under growing pressure to address his treatment of employees.”
Consider Charles Fishman (from the FastCompany piece) on Walmart:
…[T]he real story of Wal-Mart, the story that never gets told, is the story of the pressure the biggest retailer relentlessly applies to its suppliers in the name of bringing us “every day low prices.” It’s the story of what that pressure does to the companies Wal-Mart does business with, to U.S. manufacturing, and to the economy as a whole. …[it] is not just the world’s largest retailer. It’s the world’s largest company – bigger than ExxonMobil, General Motors, and General Electric. The scale can be hard to absorb. Wal-Mart sold $244.5 billion worth of goods last year. It sells in three months what number-two retailer Home Depot sells in a year.”
Who can claim that this is good for the economy, for workers, or for America? Is it not the stretching beyond the limit for worker pay, employer responsibility, and community businesses? How many “mom and pop” small businesses have gone out of business when a Walmart moves to town? How did you feel when you learned of Sears, Toys-R-Us, Compaq, Kodak, Radio Shack, Blockbuster, Circuit City, and Tower Records going out of business or shuttered brick and mortar stores? As this article in Fortune points out, a record number of stores closed in 2017: 6,700 to be exact!
This matters. Combined with outsourcing and automation (computerization, use of robotics, etc.) as well as a growing population, the very fabric of this society could be drastically different by 2050. Imagine 200,000,000 Americans with no job. What would we be talking about then – universal basic income, joblessness, the pitiful sequelae which would result from a huge number of citizens with so much time on their hands? This is a solid point from progressive economist and former Rhodes Scholar, Robert S. Reich:
“Consider that in 1964 the four most valuable American companies, with an average market capitalization of $180 billion (in 2011 dollars), employed an average of 430,000 people. Forty-seven years later, the largest American companies were each valued at about twice their former counterparts but were accomplishing their work with less than one-quarter of the number of employees.”
Charles Fishman adds this:
Of course, U.S. companies have been moving jobs offshore for decades, long before Wal-Mart was a retailing power. But there is no question that the chain is helping accelerate the loss of American jobs to low-wage countries such as China. Wal-Mart, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s trumpeted its claim to “Buy American,” has doubled its imports from China in the past five years alone, buying some $12 billion in merchandise in 2002.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz notes that the ups and downs and booms and busts occurred to many countries – and I would note that it was more of a domino effect starting with the United States than some kind of “whack-a-mole,” to mix metaphors. He assures the reader:
“But it is not inevitable. Is not the inevitable workings of the market economy. There are societies that have managed to things far better…. Those societies produce a standard of living higher than that of the United States for most of their citizens, measured not just in terms of income but in terms of health, education, security, and many other aspects that are key to determining the quality of life.” In some of the most inspiring language of his incredible book, Stiglitz writes this: “another world is possible. We can achieve a society more in accord with our fundamental values, with more opportunity, a higher total national income, a stronger democracy, and higher living standards for most individuals. It will be easy. There are some market forces pulling us the other way. Those market forces are shaped by politics….”
I don’t think a case can be made that this system is justifiable, sustainable, or helpful. Imagine having a dinner with fifteen old high school friends; the prices are steep. When the family-style food arrives, one person (the jock) eats 99% of the food. Everyone splits the cost evenly. You leave hungry, and out of money. Nobel prize-winning economist from Columbia University, Joseph Stiglitz, reflects on this dystopia we are experiencing thusly:
We are paying a high price for the inequality that is increasingly scarring our economy— lower productivity, lower efficiency, lower growth, more instability— and that the benefits of reducing this inequality, at least from the current high levels, far outweigh any costs that might be imposed. …the bottom line, though, that higher inequality is associated with lower growth – controlling for all other relevant factors – has been verified by looking at a range of countries and looking over longer periods of time.
Who has the money and the power and influence and what do they do with it? G. William Domhoff is a noted sociologist writing in this area for the last few decades, and here is a website that provides beaucoup answers. Here is a snippet: “In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in relatively few hands. As of 2013, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 36.7% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 52.2%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 89%, leaving only 11% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.8%” ~ G. William Domhoff.
It’s not like “a rising tide lifts all boats” evenly, as conservative orthodoxy would claim. Capable author David C. Korten writes that “[d]espite impressive growth in the overall economy, the bottom half of U.S. households have seen virtually no income gain. In 1970, the bottom 50 percent of U.S. wage earners averaged $16,000 a year in current dollars. By 2014 their earnings had risen to just $16,200. During the same period, the incomes of the top 1 percent grew from an average of $400,000 to $1.3 million. One-third of U.S. workers earn less than $12 an hour. And 1 out of every 7 Americans lives below the poverty line. The proposed tax cuts will further widen the already obscene gap.”
Again, these folks don’t buy stuff at the same rate that the rest of us do (which is necessary for a growing economy). They invest it (and pay a lower, capital gains tax rate), save it, and in many cases, bribe politicians with it. All branches of government, by and large, are in support. Everyone greases everyone’s palms. In a solid piece from a solid think tank, Liz Kennedy writes:
“Currently, the domination of big money over our public institutions prevents government from being responsive to Americans. This certainly is not a new phenomenon—but it is growing. Even in 2009, before the Citizens United v. FEC ruling removed constraints on corporate political spending, 80 percent of Americans agreed with the following statement:
I am worried that large political contributions will prevent Congress from tackling the important issues facing American today, like the economic crisis, rising energy costs, reforming health care, and global warming.”
Kennedy continues: “In the first presidential contest after the Citizens United decision, 84 percent of Americans agreed that corporate political spending drowns out the voices of average Americans, and 83 percent believed that corporations and corporate CEOs have too much political power and influence. This aligns with more recent research showing that 84 percent of people think government is benefitting special interests, and 83 percent think government is benefitting big corporations and the wealthy.”
Lee Drutman in The Atlantic put together an enlightening look at how corporate lobbyists conquered American democracy. Spoiler alert: it’s a sad tale. One long but telling quote popped out at me:
The evolution of business lobbying from a sparse reactive force into a ubiquitous and increasingly proactive one is among the most important transformations in American politics over the last 40 years. Probing the history of this transformation reveals that there is no “normal” level of business lobbying in American democracy. Rather, business lobbying has built itself up over time, and the self-reinforcing quality of corporate lobbying has increasingly come to overwhelm every other potentially countervailing force. It has also fundamentally changed how corporations interact with government—rather than trying to keep government out of its business (as they did for a long time), companies are now increasingly bringing government in as a partner, looking to see what the country can do for them.
Let us repair this horribly inegalitarian, dysfunctional, and wantonly capitalistic system that affords outsize power and influence to the men (yes, mostly men) who would influence our politicians in what amounts to a system of legalized bribery. The people and the planet deserve equal consideration to what the bourgeoisie give to profit! “Every choice we make has a planetary impact—what we eat, what we drive, where we travel, where we shop” points out cultural creative and author,It’s a measure of the depth of our consumer trance that the death of the planet is not sufficient to break it.” Let’s wake up, as the American Indians used to say before we downsized them to make room for profit, “before we get where we’re going.”
Editor’s Note: In response to this article, an Amazon spokesperson reached out to us with the following statements:
Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs last year alone. These are good jobs with highly competitive pay and full benefits. In the U.S., the average hourly wage for a full-time associate in our fulfillment centers, including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses, is over $15/hour before overtime. That’s in addition to our full benefits package that includes health, vision and dental insurance, retirement, generous parental leave, and skills training for in-demand jobs through our Career Choice program, which has over 16,000 participants.
Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs in the last year alone. These are good jobs with highly competitive pay and full benefits. One of the reasons we’ve been able to attract so many people to join us is that our number one priority is to ensure a positive and safe working environment. We use our Connections program to ask associates a question every day about how we can make things even better, we develop new processes and technology to make the roles in our facilities more ergonomic and comfortable for our associates, and we investigate any allegation we are made aware of and fix things that are wrong. We believe it’s this commitment to our associates and operational excellence that makes Amazon the most attractive place to work in the U.S., according to the annual LinkedIn Top Companies List. We encourage anyone to come see for themselves what it’s like to work at an Amazon fulfillment center by taking a tour — sign up and learn more at http://amazonfctours.com.
Thomas Piketty is one of the most influential modern economists. I recommend reading his theories and data which show the deep power and influence of the American upper class and corporate tycoons. Here is a blog you might want to read about Piketty and his book Capital in the 21st Century.
I will wrap this piece up before I depress myself into oblivion by presenting some compelling quotations on corporate power and influence, mega-wealth, capitalism run amok, and corporate working conditions:
“Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?”
“There’s enough on this planet for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed.”
“Traditional English, Dutch, French, and Spanish law didn’t say that corporations are people. The U.S. Constitution wasn’t written with that idea; corporations aren’t mentioned anywhere in the document or its Amendments. For America’s first century, courts all the way up to the Supreme Court repeatedly said, ‘No, corporations do not have the same rights as humans.’ In fact, the Founders were quite clear (as you can see from Hamilton’s debate earlier) that only humans inherently have rights.”
“As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pointed out in his ‘CEOs vs. Workers’ town hall Monday night—which Bezos declined to attend—the Amazon chief earns around $275 million each day while refusing to pay his workers enough to get by without food stamps.” ~ Jake Johnson
“The United States played a central role in creating the current rules of the game and the United States, still the world’s largest economy, can use its economic power and influence to shape new rules that create a fairer global economy. It may or may not be in the interests of the 1 percent to do so, but it is in our broader national interests.”
“There always is, in economic matters, an appropriate time for change…Owners of concentrated wealth and economic power usually refuse to admit this. The court has also frequently refused to admit it in time to effect the change smoothly and without grievous distress. When the court in such situations refuses to budge, the average citizen rises up to inquire, Whose Constitution is it, anyway?”
“Jeff Bezo’s newly renovated home in Washington DC will have 25 bathrooms. Meanwhile, Amazon workers skip bathroom breaks in order to meet their grueling work targets.” ~ Bernie Sanders
“Democracy and market economies are exactly what we should be seeking, because they are the foundation of equitable, self-organizing societies. Capitalism is the mortal enemy of both.”
“Poor is the man who does not know his own intrinsic worth and tends to measure everything by relative value. A man of financial wealth who values himself by his financial net worth is poorer than a poor man who values himself by his intrinsic self-worth.” ~ Sydney Madwed
“The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.” ~ Bob Marley
“Jeff Bezos has become the 1st person in recorded history worth $150 billion. Just with what he’s made in the last 24 hours, Bezos could buy every house for sale in Seattle right now ($709M) & house every homeless person in the city for 1 month.” ~ Mike Rosenberg
“All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
“Being against globalization is like being against wind. It is a force that is upon us, and it is presenting us with the greatest challenge of our lives—to tame the beast, to catalyze ourselves into a force greater than the force of greed, to shape a social mandate so genuinely moral, so unequivocal, so vigilantly protective of the rights of the whole body politic that it will be indisputable.”
“It’s not that capitalism isn’t working. It’s that what we have right now is not capitalism. What we have is corporatism. It’s welfare for the rich. It’s the government picking winners and losers. It’s Wall Street having its taxpayer-funded cake and eating it, too. It’s socialized losses and privatized gains.”
“It is not acceptable that the 6 largest financial institutions in this country have assets of almost 10 trillion dollars, and issue half of the mortgages and two-thirds of the credit cards. That is too much wealth and power in the hands of a few. If Teddy Roosevelt were alive today he’d tell us to ‘break them up.’ And he’d be right.”
“If the corporations have their way, the Earth will be killed — and that’s in your lifetime. It’s revolting to me that students are being trained to work in corporations. It’s obscene to me that the corporations are running the world. We’ve got to get cross. Anger is an appropriate emotion.”
“I want workers and consumers to have control over their own economic lives. I want everyone to have fair conditions that fully utilize their talents and potentials. I want incomes that accord with the efforts people expend in their labors. I want what is produced, by whom, under what conditions, and with who consuming the result – all determined in accord with enhancing human well-being and development and all decided by the people involved and affected.”
“The free market economy is supposed to be the only path leading to the happiness of humanity by promoting wealth and prosperity, power and influence of nations.” ~ Omar Bongo
“Our economic system has enabled companies and individuals to use their power and influence to capture and retain an ever-increasing share of the benefits of economic growth while the benefits for the poorest in society have shrunk”. ~ Winnie Byanyima
“The conservative order – inspired two generations ago by Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek and brought to power by Republican ascendancy – pushed government aside so business and capital will be free to generate more lasting prosperity. But their utopian promise was not fulfilled. Instead, the right’s principal product, one can say, was economic inequality.”
“Corporations of vast wealth and remorseless staying power have moved into our politics to seize for themselves advantages that can be seized only by control over government.” ~ Sheldon Whitehouse
“The economists Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago and Mara Faccio of Purdue estimate that Americans pay $50 billion per year more [for smartphone service] than they would if they instead were paying European prices — for the same quality service. … [I]t highlights the problem with antitrust policy in the United States. We have allowed companies to grow too large, to the point that many of them have outsize power.” ~ David Leonhardt