If Jeff Bezos wants to be ‘disruptive’, he should listen to biblical prophets

Thee Amazon logo on a screen at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York's Times Square on Oct. 3, 2018. (AP Photo)

Jeff Bezos conceived the idea for Amazon when he was 12 years old, shooting snapping turtles in the muddy red creeks of eastern Oklahoma. He wrote the business plan on the back of a Doublemint wrapper driving back to the bait shop. He set up operations in a shag-carpeted treehouse in his backyard, delivering packets of Mike and Ike’s to neighborhood kids, and eventually made a trillion-dollar company out of it. Lo, the things this star-spangled soil can yield!

This is totally not true, but hang with me. Business creation stories—shoe leather on the pavement, lemonade stand into beverage empire—also create the reality of Americans’ positive views of highly successful, “disruptive” enterprises like Amazon. Amazon is, by one survey, the second most admired company in the country. It does a very impressive job of getting stuff into the hands of people who want them.

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And it is despised by a not-insignificant number of people.

Amazon is in the air where I live, New York City, because of the drama surrounding a successful fight against the company’s planned “second headquarters” here. Some argue that Amazon’s opponents foolishly rejected a great opportunity for the city: A lot of New Yorkers now won’t have jobs and will have lost a bunch of money. You blew it.

Something is troubling in this. Is it that cut-and-dried? Mourn, don’t rejoice that Amazon has been chased away? Amazon’s opponents blew it? Is that true?

Companies like Amazon are both reviled for their business practices and panted after when they dangle jobs before a community.

Companies like Amazon are both reviled for their business practices and panted after when they dangle jobs before a community (or when you simply need a gently worn copy of Siddhartha). Given that business, the entrepreneurial spirit, enjoys a near-sacred trust in the United States, how ought we consider a company like Amazon and what went down in New York? And what might the prophets—both in the Old Testament and in latter days—have to say about the whole affair?

Bezo’s Money, Amazon’s Sins

That Jeff Bezos is worth $163 billion dollars while the median pay of his employees runs to about $28,000 a year is, of course, obscene. No person on earth should have that much money while the people who make him that money have so little.

His company is a fiercely anti-union, trillion-dollar corporate giant that controls nearly half of the U.S. online retail market and paid no federal taxes last year; that in Seattle fought off a new corporate tax that would have gone toward alleviating homelessness; that offers facial recognition tools to help ICE with its immigration crackdown; that tantalizes states with jobs in exchange for millions and even billions in tax subsidies. (The harsh, metrics-driven working conditions make the Amazon job sites nothing like the gentle post-Christian retreat houses that their name—fulfillment centers—might indicate.)

Deal, No Deal

In November of last year, Amazon announced a deal with the State of New York and New York City to create a second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, that it claimed would have brought 25,000 new jobs to the city. An outcry over the terms of the deal by Democratic politicians, unions and community groups ensued. Negotiations were held. Then, on Feb. 14, Amazon walked away from the negotiating table and backed out of the agreement.

How ought we consider a company like Amazon and what went down in New York? And what might the prophets have to say about the whole affair?

Opponents of the deal voiced concerns not only about Amazon’s business practices but a host of issues, including a lack of community input, more demands on already overburdened city services, the question of who exactly those jobs would have gone to, the $3 billion in subsidies and tax breaks the city offered and, most critically, fears that the deal would push low- and middle-income people out of yet another New York neighborhood. (The editors of America noted that providing tax breaks to private companies makes sense in some cases but that such incentives must serve the common good—and not just a handful of companies.)

Getting Amazon to pull out of New York was a stunning victory for a small band of determined organizers and community members.

But Wait

There is another side to this, of course.

After all, railing against the 1 percent, denouncing the wealth gap, valorizing unions and activists—these are the kinds of things that get churned out in the basement offices of college newspapers, no? Think of newspapers at Midwestern Catholic colleges in the early ’90s, the tiny bunkers of truth where reporters with thick goatees who were somehow both peaceable and aggressive hunched over Macintosh Power P.C.s, where fiery young pamphleteers blasted out unfiltered screeds against the neo-Reaganite economic order swaddling us all with the sinister gray duct tape of wage “despairity” and general human oppression.

In other words, these kinds of things tend to get written in a university fantasyland where no one really knows the real reality of anything. It is simplistic and dreamy and far too obvious.

Railing against the 1 percent, denouncing the wealth gap—these are the kinds of things that get churned out in the basement offices of college newspapers, no?

After all, the capitalist financial order is more complex than it may seem at first blush. Mr. Bezos only pays himself an annual salary of $81,840, and his net worth of $163 billion mainly comes from the stocks he owns in Amazon. And so maybe you could say Mr. Bezos has accrued that $163 billion rather innocently (or at least with “neutral morality”)—not “off the backs of his workers” but by the involuntary happenstance of what the fetching spirit child called “the free market” will bear.

One might argue—with some complex economic logic that escapes a glorified dishwasher like me (Katie’s Greek Taverna, Omaha, 1997)—that if some government mandate were to change that ratio ($163 billion vs. $14 per hour) and up his workers’ pay to, say, $30 an hour and even mandate that they form a union so those employees have actual adult power in their place of work,then that very pay raise and union formation would have “unintended consequences,” which would somehow dampen Amazon’s ability or desire to hire more warehouse workers and thus hurt the very class of the American working poor that everyone wants to help.

Prophets and Profits

And so, given that all of this is very complex and that we are not hyperbolic college sophomores anymore and that “hey, you buy stuff off Amazon, too,” so it is hypocritical to even criticize them—where does that leave us?

The writings of Abraham Heschel, renowned student of the Old Testament prophets, point to answers. “The sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics,” Rabbi Heschel writes in his seminal work, The Prophets. “To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence.”

Even the mundane, the yawningly normal practices of U.S. companies are worthy of the prophets’ outrage.

Yes, even the mundane, the yawningly normal practices of U.S. companies—like busting unions, skirting taxes or treating employees like cogs in a machine—are worthy of the prophets’ outrage. For the prophet, “even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions,” Rabbi Heschel writes. He quotes from Amos 8:4-6:

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy,
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
Saying, When will the new moon be over...
That we may make the ephah small and the shekel great,
And deal deceitfully with false balances,
That we may buy the poor for silver,
And the needy for a pair of sandals.

Amos rails against the buyers and sellers of commodities and how they rook the poor out of their money. “There is no society to which Amos’ words would not apply,” writes Rabbi Heschel.

God sent the prophets because he has incredibly high expectations for our lives together. Like any parent, God wants great things for his children and mourns when it does not happen. God wants us to flourish, to have our fair share, to enjoy the fruits of his world as much as anyone else.

There is something profoundly sick and corrupt in the American economic landscape these days (or maybe it has always been this way): the fundamental powerlessness of ordinary people before gigantic corporations. You can see it in the conclusion that is drawn regarding those who opposed Amazon: A lot of people will be out of work and money. You blew it.

This is the position we find ourselves in. We beg for work from these companies. The country operates out of a jobs absolutism, an employment fundamentalism that dictates a city or state should do everything it can to secure jobs for its people. There is no amount of money it won’t give away, no bad actor it won’t partner with, no sort of low-paying, high-human-cost job it won’t accept, no working-class neighborhood it won’t destroy to create work opportunities for its residents.

State and local governments even ignore the research that tax abatement offers often aren’t worth the benefits they supposedly provide and can even have negative effects on the cities and states that make them. But if we question the terms of the deal—Behold! They pull out! And we blew it! It’s our fault!

Prophets, even Mary of Nazareth, call for the reversal: the casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.

Radical Disrupters

We too easily let glide away that young version of us with his or her plain and pointed questions (why are things this way?); the minor prophet deep in the college basement; the one who would point out, for instance, that the whole income disparity thing is not that complex. No executive makes that much money except off the backs of workers. Mr. Bezos’s net worth comes from stocks, and Amazon stocks are not worth a thing if its people don’t move that freight and deliver those goods. If workers are not there to do what they do, their corporate paymasters make all of nothing.

Instead we ply that student radical with a numbing liquor of “Well, the political climate just isn’t right for these ideas”; the apéritif of “Who indeed am I to protest because I, too, enjoy the convenience of their services”; the preprandial of “Well, isn’t it arrogant of me to be against a thing so many are in favor of” and “economic matters are very complex aren’t they” and “the board members of my inner-city nonprofit work for these companies.” And thus one should probably just say nothing on these matters, ever.

Entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos talk about being “innovators” and “disrupters,” but really they are not—not in truly world-shaking ways.

But that blunt sophomore who is unburdened by such paralyzing excuses, who is “arrogant,” “out of touch,” “taking Scripture a bit too seriously,” should reclaim your heart at least once or twice a year—should come back and say hyperbolic things loaded with truth, like the words of Jeremiah to those who are “just doing what businesses do”:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
And his upper rooms by injustice.
Who makes his neighbors serve him for nothing,
and does not give him his wages.

Or maybe even something from Vedder/Cornell:

I don’t mind stealing bread
from the mouths of decadence.
And I can’t feed on the powerless
when my cup’s already overfilled.

Entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos talk about being “innovators” and “disrupters,” but really they are not—not in truly world-shaking ways. Imagine if they announced to the world: We are radically changing how we operate; we are reorienting the “metrics system” by which we judge our employees. We are doubling the wages of our warehouse workers, increasing benefits. We are becoming, for God’s sake, a cooperative. Workers will be on our board, setting policy, helping run the show. We are diminishing in power so they can increase.

It is so unthinkable. Or is it? Hugely ambitious companies like Amazon go full tilt after what they want, and they usually do not stop until they get it. So they just have to want different things.

So do that, Amazon. Change! Innovate! Disrupt! You have one trillion dollars to fall back on if things don’t go perfectly. Be different, Amazon, pretty much now.

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JR Cosgrove
1 year 3 months ago

There were innovators and disrupters in Venezuela too. They raised wages artificially. Which would you rather have, Bezos or Chavez?

The United States is a horrible place, all those people making more than those from anywhere else in the world but slaves to people like Jeff Bezos. Soon Jeff Bezos wont be making all this money off the backs of people. They will be replaced by robots. Aside: I am for breaking Amazon up into pieces because of its economic clout may cause lack of freedom by potential competitors.

Richard Murray
1 year 3 months ago

This is a great article. J Cosgrove, your comment about Venezuela is out of place and misinformed. Venezuela has been the target of foreign interference (read: the United States and those who operate the U.S.) for some decades. Imagine if a nation with a thousand times more economic clout than us tried to squash us; even if not fully successful, they sure would hurt us a lot. This is what the U.S. has been doing to Venezuela for decades.
Had we not interfered so much with that sovereign nation, they might be doing a lot better now.
Of course, the current coup is a bunch of nonsense thought up by the CFR (council on foreign relations), implemented into policy by the U.S. State Department, which the CFR owns and operates; and the cia is called in to do their dirty work. If the cia is not fully successful, then the American military will be called into action.
Sadly, the U.S. has already acted according to this script many times. This policy is made, well, by people like Bezos, and others at, or behind, the CFR, etc.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 3 months ago

This is a naive article. If Amazon doubled the wages of the people making $28,000 they all would be out of a job as more productive workers would take their place at the higher wages. Also if there was foreign interference in Venezuela it came from Cuba. Thank you for responding. Quote: For years, studies have found that individuals come to faulty conclusions even when the facts are staring them in the face.

Richard Murray
1 year 3 months ago

J Cosgrove, you seem to be a bit confused. Cuba is friends with Venezuela.
Cuba is not, for example, enforcing painful embargoes and financial pressures on Venezuela. That would be the United States.

Christopher Lochner
1 year 3 months ago

Don't you read??? Venezuela is blocking any and all humanitarian aid into their country. Their administration would rather let their people starve and die than to admit to an error in ideology. (Sorta like the poet who penned the article above. ) Venezuela had a source of income from petroleum which failed, in part, because the petro experts running things were replaced with party hacks. Oh, spare me from idealogues!

Richard Murray
1 year 3 months ago

Christopher Lochner, if you want reliable information (i.e., truth) on this situation, read Max Blumenthal and listen to his podcasts at the Grayzone Project and Moderate Rebels. He has spent time recently in Venezuela, and knows the score there.

Even the New York Times recently reported that the violence there was being caused by the rebels, not by the government. And the NYT usually is helping to manufacture the official story, as they helped the buildup to the God-Awful War Upon the Human Beings of Iraq. Perhaps the situation in Venezuela is so obviously an American production that they resorted to journalistic truth-telling for a time?

Also, here is Max Blumenthal on the situation there:

https://thegrayzone.com/2019/04/13/us-military-attack-venezuela-trump-csis-invasion/

Mike Macrie
1 year 3 months ago

Central America Countries are Capitalist Countries and why are the people running away from them - One word Corruption!
Venezuela is a Socialist Country and why are people running away - One Word Corruption! Let’s not confuse Ideology for success or failure of a country when you have Corruption. Also let’s not label people as Socialist because they believe every American deserves the right of Family Health Care no matter what they earn.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 3 months ago

Central America Countries are Capitalist Countries

Are they? There are several Central American counties. Only one comes close to a free market capitalist country but is hardly there. Another one is trying. Socialism always leads to corruption because it cannot possibly work, so oppression and cronyism become inevitable. Who is confusing socialism with family health care?

JR Cosgrove
1 year 3 months ago

The problem is that Cuba is friends with Venezuela and has driven a once successful economy into the sewer. Venezuela and Cuba are bedfellows in disaster, socialist disaster.

James Schwarzwalder
1 year 3 months ago

Don't subscribe to the Washington Post.

J. Calpezzo
1 year 3 months ago

This is a silly piece.
What of Legatus, and Opus Dei?

Roger Mahony would never have built his great Cathedral if not for the monied corporate interests of L.A. (and a few South American drug kingpins).
Who do you think bankrolls the Al Smith dinners in NYC?

Venus Majeski
1 year 3 months ago

And the richest corporation on earth- the Catholic Church- prospers and holds its treasures under lock and key; manages its vast real estate holdings with stealth; provides royal robes and residences to management while the poor sisters hold bake sales for groceries and the starving children around the globe beg for a cup of rice... the cries of the prophets continue to fall upon deaf ears- even the successors to Peter cannot hear.

Richard Murray
1 year 3 months ago

This is false rubbish, Venus. By the way, Catholic Charities, and Catholic Relief Services, are two of the best charities on the planet. I'm not aware of others who come close to their goodness and effectiveness.
Sure, there are some properties that the Church has, and these enable the Church to serve people in all locales.
There is a great art museum at the Vatican. Is that wrong? If you want them to sell the works at this one Catholic museum, do you also want the Louvre and the NY Met to sell all their works and close up shop?

J Jones
1 year 3 months ago

For the record, almost 2/3 of funding received by Catholic Charities USA and 3/4 of funding received by Catholic Relief Services comes

- not from the RCC
- not from individual Catholics
- not from the Vatican
- not from Parishes

It comes from the GOVERNMENT.
Also known as the American taxpayer.
Also known as mostly non-Catholics.

Richard Murray
1 year 3 months ago

J Jones, it seems you've invented this out of thin air. Stats? Proof?
Catholics and Christians are caring and generous people, J Jones.

J Jones
1 year 3 months ago

Read the annual financial reports of each org to learn about their funding sources; they are available online. Alternately, google "CCUSA government funding" and "CRS government funding". The bulk of annual funding for each organization comes from "public sources": federal, state, county, city governments. NOT from the RCC, NOT from the Vatican, NOT from Parishes, NOT from religious orders, NOT from individual Catholics. It comes from GOVERNMENT which means from American taxpayers.

The point is that CCUSA and CRS are NOT proof of the Church's generosity or charity because that money does not come from the Church.

I believe most Catholics are simply uninformed that they are perpetuating a myth when they make statements like yours. Do the research, Richard. It will take you less than 5 minutes.

(This myth is the root of a lot of Catholic outrage about things like "Catholic" adoption agencies being "shut down" because they won't place children with gay couples. Those agencies are not being "shut down". They simply do not have the right to deny taxpayer-funded services to taxpayers. And because the bulk of those agencies' adoption funding comes from taxpayers, they can't afford to stay in business while refusing services to some groups of taxpayers That's all. It is really very straightforward. If it were all Catholic Church money, there would be no problem.)

Again, research it. Less than 5 minutes.

Venus Majeski
1 year 3 months ago

And the richest corporation on earth- the Catholic Church- prospers and holds its treasures under lock and key; manages its vast real estate holdings with stealth; provides royal robes and residences to management while the poor sisters hold bake sales for groceries and the starving children around the globe beg for a cup of rice... the cries of the prophets continue to fall upon deaf ears- even the successors to Peter cannot hear.

Richard Murray
1 year 3 months ago

This is false rubbish, Venus. By the way, Catholic Charities, and Catholic Relief Services, are two of the best charities on the planet. I'm not aware of others who come close to their goodness and effectiveness.
Sure, there are some properties that the Church has, and these enable the Church to serve people in all locales.
There is a great art museum at the Vatican. Is that wrong? If you want them to sell the works at this one Catholic museum, do you also want the Louvre and the NY Met to sell all their works and close up shop?

J Jones
1 year 3 months ago

See my comment above. Catholic Charities USA gets 2/3 of its funding of the government (the American taxpayer). CRS gets 3/4 of its funding from the government.

Catholics need to quit telling this myth.

Richard Murray
1 year 3 months ago

J Jones, it seems you've invented this out of thin air. Stats? Proof?
Catholics and Christians are caring and generous people, J Jones.

J Jones
1 year 3 months ago

See above. The bulk of funding for Catholic Charities and CRS is public money which means government money which means taxpayer money.

William McGovern
1 year 3 months ago

It is very concerning that we have have a few companies like Amazon and Google that have amassed so much power through their sheer size. It is in society’s interest that they don’t stifle competition

However, it this point, they remain in a competitive environment and while it would be great for a company such as Amazon to double the wages of its lower paid employees, is that practical from a competitive standpoint? The $1B you say that Amazon has to fall back on could disappear rather quickly if stock investors say that Amazon was becoming uncompetitive compared to others. And the $1B is not like having money in the bank because it stock.

I would love to see Amazon and others raise pay and benefits. But it, like any other company, can only do so keeping in mind it’s competitive position in the world-wide marketplace. Otherwise, like many companies before it (Bethlehem Steel for example), it will not remain in business. A few years ago, who would have thought that General Motors would go bankrupt and have to start over or that General Electric would be having the difficulties it is now experiencing? Remember when AOL was king of the Internet?

Denise Delurgio
1 year 3 months ago

Brother Joe, this essay could have been written in the basement offices of a college newspaper. Your perspective is just as immature. The lack of real world experiences in your chosen profession creates false conclusions regarding economics. "You didn't build that," comes to mind.

Richard Murray
1 year 3 months ago

Denise, could you give any examples of what you're talking about?
Here's a real example from real life. At Amazon's "fulfillment centers," employees must wait in line, sometimes for half an hour, to leave the building. They go through metal detectors, or other kinds of theft-prevention security devices, to make sure that none of the products walk out of the building with the employees. The employees are not paid for this wasted time. And Amazon recently won a lawsuit to ensure that they don't have to pay the employees for wasting more of the employees' time. How would you like it when, after a long shift at work each day, you had to burn up 30 minutes of your time as you leave your worksite, to make sure that you don't steal anything?

Phillip Stone
1 year 3 months ago

St Paul already told you that law brings death. Think about it.
Why did a big company have to invest in expensive equipment and employ people to operate it and marshal the departing employees though the check points.
Because of the already discovered existence of thieves amongst them. Consistently, repeatedly.
What fellow workers have done has led to fellow workers being inconvenienced by being policed.
What is Amazon saying? Do not steal. Heard that somewhere before?

Everything expected of those who belong in the Kingdom of God is counter-cultural.
Rich people are in more trouble getting to heaven than poor people.
Poor people must not steal or be violent to each other.
All must refrain from being envious, eschewing covetousness.

In fact, from Australia it looks like you cannot be a Democrat and enter the kingdom of God and yet Jesuits preach Christian Marxism maybe without self-awareness.

Phillip Stone
1 year 3 months ago

Poetry does not seem to have helped enlighten this writer particularly about the real world and money and business.

Just substitute USA in every place that the word Amazon is used.

[In fairness I should add, the Old Testament for a long time included the myth that rich people were blessed or favoured by God, that is why they are rich, and poor people are cursed by God and that is why they are poor. The prophets did not have the benefit of the Good News but a mandate to refine and improve the culture of the Hebrews in readiness for the teaching of Messiah.
Jesus revealed that the LOVE of money was the root of all evil, not actual wealth. Read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to see the gospel of money from an alternative perspective and then give up totally this Liberation Theology heresy.]

Elisabeth Wilkes
1 year 3 months ago

I'm glad I'm not the only one who is frustrated with Amazon's business practices. When I was taking classes in publishing, one of my professors called Amazon the "necessary evil". By this they meant that if you wanted your company's books to be searchable online at all, you had to give into Amazon's demands for insane discounts (that we would never give to any other distributor) and their "you need to drop everything" attitude when they need something from you, but "we'll get back to you whenever we feel like it" attitude when we need something from them. Which is business I suppose, I don't complain about Google for knowing that they kind of own us to be able to do what we need to do. But while Amazon treats customers impeccably, they don't treat the suppliers very kindly, which I think will bite them in the butt later on. But besides that, I like the author's take on the necessity of trading convenience for what is actually good for others. Markets, especially after the Industrial Revolution, have been this back and forth between making sure the customer is happy with the lowest of prices possible, and pushing for employee safety and benefits that will necessarily change the price of the products. It's a hard balance to have a company that treats it's employees well enough, but not too well as to put the entire company in danger. Unfortunately, it often falls on the consumer nowadays to be willing to pay a little extra because companies don't have an incentive to change their practices unless it is negatively affecting their profits.

William McGovern
1 year 3 months ago

Well stated Elisabeth. Consumers all too often focus only on price. Factors such as “made in America “ are overlooked.

William McGovern
1 year 3 months ago

Well stated Elisabeth. Consumers all too often focus only on price. Factors such as “made in America “ are overlooked.

Vince Killoran
1 year 3 months ago

I haven't purchased anything from Amazon for 14 months. I do not pay for any information from the WaPo.

In his incisive new book, KEYWORDS: THE NEW LANGUAGE OF CAPITALISM, John Patrick Leary lays out the historical and recent uses of the term. In the hands of Bezos et al. (corporate branders match it with "innovation"), it has been transformed into a means of managing challenges to economic injustice. The swagger it suggests masks the shoring up of entrepreneurial, free market confidence schemers.

Victoria Figueroa
1 year 3 months ago

At $28,000 who can afford to buy anything from Amazon? I'd be out of luck. I'm all for fair profit but the ratio of Bezos' salary to his workers is criminal. Costco and Trader Joe's prove that you can pay workers a decent, living wage and still be profitable.

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