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.
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.
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.
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.