Our current national confusion over wealth taxes serves only the wealthy.
Jeff Bezos is stepping down as CEO of Amazon. He’ll stay on as the executive chairman of Amazon’s board, but he’ll no longer be managing the company on a daily basis. Editors and pundits worldwide are treating this news as an epochal event. The supreme giant of the Internet economy, goes the refrain, is moving on.
The Bezos decision to exit Amazon’s CEO suite, Bloomberg laments, at least partially ends “one of the most epic runs in modern business history.” Bezos, adds CNET, gave us “more than a quarter-century of shattering the status quo.” The man built, exclaims CNBC, “a $1.6 trillion company from nothing.” His “genius,” the UK Telegraph sums up, makes Bezos, “the Henry Ford of his generation.”
Look, Jeff Bezos certainly does rate as a smart guy. But smart people abound in the Internet economy. Many of them work at Amazon. Collectively, as a group, all these smart people have brought us the many innovations that have sped Amazon’s rise to global dominance, everything from personalized recommendations to “1-Click” shopping.
In other words, Jeff Bezos individually didn’t create an enterprise hundreds of millions of people worldwide now depend on. The employees at Amazon, working together, created this enterprise. They deserve the credit, not one individual named Jeff Bezos. We ought to be recognizing their collective achievement.
And who couldn’t agree more that the “1.3 million talented, dedicated people” who work for Amazon have “done crazy things together” that lie at “the root” of Amazon’s success? None other than Jeff Bezos himself. All these noble sentiments appear in the February 2 letter Bezos emailed to Amazon employees on the day he announced his decision to step down as CEO.
“I hope you are as proud of our inventiveness as I am,” the Bezos email smiled. “I think you should be.”
Now on one level, of course, the sentiments in this Bezos salute to Amazon’s staff merely follow the standard departing-executive magnanimity playbook. Tell your folks you couldn’t have done it without them. We’ve each heard this line — from those at the top — a hundred times over. But that doesn’t make the line false. Enterprise success does reflect a collective effort. Always has. Always will.
So kudos to Bezos for following that standard playbook and recognizing — in his farewell words as CEO — the enormous contributions that Amazon’s employees have made over the past 27 years. But hisses and boos for his abject failure, over those same 27 years, to recognize those contributions in actual deed. Amazon’s employees should have been sharing in the company’s success all along. The rewards, instead, have flowed overwhelmingly to Bezos himself.
Bezos now rates, depending on the vagaries of the daily stock market, as the richest or second-richest person on Earth. His total fortune, according to the Bloomberg billionaire tracker, now stands at nearly $200 billion. Bezos claims in his farewell email to staff that Amazon deserves praise for upping its minimum pay to $15 an hour. What the letter doesn’t point out: At $15 an hour, an Amazon worker would have to labor over 32,000 years to earn even one of his billions.
Amazon under Bezos has consciously chosen not to share its success. Modern economies share success most fundamentally through the collective bargaining process. Workers join in unions. Unions keep employers from ignoring the contributions workers are making to corporate success. Amazon, right from the company’s start, has maneuvered to keep Amazon union-free.
All the attention on the Bezos CEO exit is helping Amazon stay that way. The accolades heaped on the “genius” of Jeff Bezos are diverting attention from the most significant attempt yet to gain bargaining rights at Amazon, the worker struggle to unionize Amazon’s Bessemer fulfillment center in Alabama. Bezos and Amazon have been battling that effort with all guns blazing.
The Bessemer warehouse opened last March. By the end of November, over 2,000 workers at the center had signed union authorization cards. But Amazon has been working to postpone the mail election that would bring the Bessemer workforce union recognition — to give the company as much time as possible to poison the environment that surrounds the voting.
That poisoning has already begun, notes the Guardian’s Michael Sainato, “through texts, messaging, an anti-union website, and several anti-union captive audience meetings with workers at the warehouse.” The company’s “do-it-without-dues” message hasn’t been particularly subtle. By going union, Amazon is charging, workers will “be giving up your right to speak for yourself.” Warns the company: “Don’t let the union take your money for nothing.”
Amazon’s tactics in Alabama may prove decisive. Amazon may succeed at squashing the union vote. If that happens, we all lose — because management science tells us that real, sustainable enterprise innovation and success only come when enterprises share the rewards they generate. Outrageous rewards give executives an incentive to operate outrageously, to jeopardize, for instance, worker safety, as Amazon has repeatedly been doing.
No executives, the founder of modern management science Peter Drucker believed, ought to earn over 20 or 25 times what their workers are making. In the United States today, the world’s top happyland for corporate execs, we’re not quite meeting that standard. In 2018, 50 U.S. CEOs pocketed over 1,000 times their median worker’s take-home.
We won’t narrow the gap between America’s richest and everyone else until we slow down this reckless corporate inequality engine. And we can do that. We can legislate and regulate out of existence the strong-arming tactics that employers like Amazon use to stay “union-free.” We can deny government contracts to corporations that pay their execs outrageously more than they pay their workers. We can tax these same corporations at higher levels than firms that fairly share the wealth.
Goodbye, CEO Jeff Bezos. May we never see another CEO as insatiably voracious.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.