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A Frivolous Expense

by Mathias Gjesdal Hammer

Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos, ed. Walter Isaacson, Harvard Business Review Press, 2020.

From a young age, Jeff Bezos was quick to quantify human behaviour. In his 2010 commencement address at Princeton, Bezos recalled wanting to get his grandmother to stop smoking as a child. Instead of asking, begging, or appealing to some form of moral reason, he simply ran some calculations and shouted out from the back of the campervan: ‘At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off your life!’ The reaction from his grandparents was not what he expected. His grandmother burst into tears, and his grandfather pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway, looked at him and said, ‘Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever’. As Bezos himself reminiscences, the challenge his grandfather posed to him was to reconcile compassion and intelligence. In attempting to assess whether young Bezos succeeded, we have Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos — the most extensive collection of words from one of the wealthiest men on earth.

The book is not being sold as a guide to Jeff Bezos’s political and ethical beliefs. Rather, as its editor Walter Isaacson puts it, ‘through this book you can learn many of the lessons and secrets revealed in Bezos’s interviews, writings, and the annual shareholder letters he has personally composed since 1997’. In other words, Invent and Wander fits nicely into the Silicon self-help genre — books that promise to teach us how to emulate the Bezoses, Gateses, and Steve Jobses of the world. These books promise profound lessons on how to succeed alongside the implicit promise that if you buy this book, you will succeed. Bezos’ new collection is no exception.

In the introduction, Isaacson summarises the crucial take-aways for people who don’t have the time or energy to plough through 20 years of shareholder letters. Key lessons here vary from the obvious (‘focus on the long term’ and ‘hire the right people’) to the disappointingly mundane (‘avoid PowerPoint and slide presentations’). If you’re reading this book hoping for fresh business advice, then, expect to be disappointed. In fact, the collection as a whole fails to provide much that is new. It suffers from an inevitable ad hoc feeling: this is not a biography, but rather a compilation of everything the notoriously media-averse Bezos has released into the public realm. Where the book is more interesting, then, is in its tracing of how Amazon’s statements have shifted over time. Positioning itself against potential critiques aimed at the company, the book provides fragments of insight into Jeff Bezos’s views on an eclectic range of topics, from social welfare to the very future of humanity.

The first half of the book is made up of Jeff Bezos’s annual shareholder letters, from 1997-2019. These chart the awe-inspiring rise in profits year after year from an annual revenue of $147.8 million to $280 billion. The company currently employs over one million workers across the globe (not including the vast number of workers on temporary or third-party contracts) and counts almost half of US households as Prime members. Throughout the shareholder letters, we get a sense of the key shifts Amazon has made along the way, from gradually moving beyond its humble beginnings as an online bookstore to becoming the all-encompassing company it is today. There are perhaps three changes that are worth mentioning here. Most obviously, Amazon’s development of hardware — such as the Amazon Kindle, Fire, and Echo — marks a drastic shift from e-store to something much more multifaceted. Secondly, Amazon has shifted dramatically from being a company that sells products to being a platform that third-party sellers use to reach customers. Thirdly, the greatest source of growth over the past years has come from Amazon Web Services (AWS), which currently owns a third of all cloud storage and counts the CIA, Netflix, and Microsoft among its customers. In other words, Amazon has slowly shifted from selling goods directly to customers to providing the infrastructure through which an ever-increasing amount of commerce is driven.

More interestingly, perhaps, we can also trace the change in content from the early letters to the later ones. Up until 2013, there is no mention of employee well-being, or even social issues per se. Profit, innovation, and change was the core focus at this stage. After 2013, though, social issues take up increasingly large parts of the letters, reaching its apogee in the 2019 letter which focuses purely on the social goods Amazon provides. The first time working conditions are mentioned — in 2013 — coincides with some of the earliest exposés of the horrors of working for Amazon, mass protests among German warehouse employees seeking to unionise, and a new focus on Bezos’s ruthless business practices. It seems more than plausible, then, that this new focus was more of an effort to deflect negative press than representative of Amazon’s drastic reorientation towards a social-welfare-centric business model.

Bezos’s intentions notwithstanding, of course, we could hope that these changes would have reconciled Amazon’s unceasing desire for growth and expansion with a more human touch. The most prominent policies that were introduced over the last few years include raising Amazon’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and a much-touted employee retraining scheme. As Bezos puts it in his 2018 shareholder letter, ‘we did it because it felt like the right thing to do’. Does his explanation stand up to a deeper examination, though? While we’re on the subject of the much-celebrated increase in their minimum wage, it’s worth mentioning that, as of 2018, the pay of an average warehouse worker was $17.50 an hour. Amazon, therefore, remained far behind the national average. And even more damaging, as Heather Long documented in the Washington Post, Amazon has played a key role in the reduction of warehouse pay from nearly $21 an hour in 2000 (adjusted for inflation) to $17.50 an hour in 2018. This move came alongside cuts in bonuses and stock grants, making it unclear whether employees are ending up any better than they were before.

As for the retraining scheme, many of the options — such as truck driving, global helpdesk “specialist” or office clerk — are not so much up-skilling as they are side- or down-skilling. These jobs pay the same or less than Amazon jobs and seem as vulnerable to the threats of automation as working in a warehouse, so this hardly appears to be motivated by altruistic concerns. Unless Amazon starts offering more extensive training programs — such as paying community college tuition, for one — it seems unlikely that this program will actually help their employees move up in the world. It’s worth noting that neither policy applies to the vast number of temporary employees hired via third-party companies, all of whom are paid much worse salaries and given none of the benefits that full-time employees receive. And this is no small proportion of the Amazon work force, either: published in the Huffington Post, Dave Jamieson reveals that in 2013, the company had 90,000 full-time warehouse employees, but planned to hire 100,000 seasonal workers. While Amazon’s data-drive hiring practices (which carefully calibrates the size of its workforce based on consumer demand) allows the company to keep costs low, it also creates a vast “precariat” of people who are dependent on getting a new job every few months.

If we have reason to doubt Bezos’s sincerity that this was ‘the right thing to do’, a better picture hardly emerges when we consider the conditions within Amazon warehouses. At fulfilment centres, workers are pushed to meet stringent productivity rates within a system in which their every step is quantified and analysed. The system’s notorious ‘time off task’ metric punishes employees if they take a break for too long, to the point that employees reported avoiding bathroom breaks to keep up with the standards. Indeed, in documents obtained by The Verge, estimates suggest that as many as 10% of warehouse staff are fired annually for productivity reasons. The level of data collected means that at the Amazon-owned enterprise Whole Foods, heat-maps have been used to track workers in stores at risk of unionisation, and to discover which employees would be most likely to lead a protest.

It’s not only the warehouse workers who have it rough. The corporate culture at Amazon remains one of long hours, high pressure, and high turnover. Interviewed in the New York Times, former employees have described the environment as one in which they were encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas, work around the clock (emails would regularly arrive past midnight, accompanied by texts asking why they were not answered), and that those who failed to do so were quickly forced out of the company. As Bezos himself put it, ‘you can work long, hard, or smart, but at you can’t choose two out of three’. Indeed, while companies such as Google, Apple, and Facebook are known for providing a vast array of goodies for their employees to encourage greater productivity, Amazon has cut costs even here. Indeed, in 1999, Amazon took away the only free perk employees received: Aspirin. Even the negligible cost of painkillers proved to be a frivolous expense. By contrast, Bezos describes his morning routine in the following way. ‘I like to putter in the morning. I get up early. I go to bed early. I like to have coffee. I like to have breakfast with my kids before they go to school. So, my puttering time is very important to me’. While an in-depth analysis of Bezos’s morning routine is beside the point here, his argument is that only by being well-rested and not over-worked is he able to make high-quality decisions. While managerial staff are of course much better remunerated than the warehouse employees, it seems that this optimal work-life balance that Bezos describes is reserved for him alone.

So far, we’ve seen one side of Bezos. The slightly dull number cruncher who has managed to create an unimaginably large business-empire while also carving out much-needed family time. By contrast, Bezos’s idealistic side comes in his Blue Origin project, which aims at nothing less than bringing humanity into space. In his high school valedictorian speech, he envisioned a future in which a majority of humans lived on colonies orbiting the earth, which would be a pristine museum of our humble origins. That vision has remained unchanged since. The reasoning for this outer-space desire, Bezos suggests, is ‘just arithmetic’. On Earth, he suggests, the amount of resources we have left to produce is limited, and will, at some point, make future economic growth impossible. The solution, therefore, is simple in Bezos’s thinking. The only way to save the Earth is to leave it behind. ‘If we move out into the solar system, we will have, for all practical purposes, unlimited resources…We could have a trillion humans in the solar systems, which means we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. This would be an incredible civilization’. Space colonies ‘that kept zero G so you could go flying’, manmade national parks, ‘Maui on its best day all year long — no rain, no storms, no earthquakes’, and massive orbiting cities that ‘hold a million people or more each’. Bezos seems to see this as his fundamental gift to humanity. While he goes to great lengths to emphasize how he plans to ‘give away [his] fortune’, he concludes his chapter on charity by stating: ‘but I’m also going to invest a lot of money in something’ — Blue Origin — ‘which any rational investor would say is really bad investment, but I think is super important’. The subtext here is clear: while charity here on Earth is important, launching humanity into space is even more so.

There are many striking elements to Bezos’s space vision. But it’s worth noting the similarities in his analysis of the fundamental problem facing humans to the traditional Marxist critique of capitalism. While this point has been re-applied by later Marxist scholars such as Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey, even Marx and Engels declared that ‘the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe’. Capitalism demands incessant growth, and when this fails to happen, crisis ensues. In a more contemporary setting, authors such as Naomi Klein have suggested that capitalism’s endemic need for growth means we must look for alternatives, principally in no-growth models. Bezos, however, reassures us that the solution is simply to keep on expanding into ever-new markets. A vast array of floating space stations orbiting the earth will save the climate and humanity without harming the bottom line. Further still, it implies that there is no need to consider any alternative economic solutions — the ever-expanding drive of capitalism, which is responsible for the climate crisis, will be our eventual saviour. While Bezos’s sudden departure from Amazon leaves it unclear where exactly he is headed next, there are many signs that Blue Origin lies at the center of his future plans.

Taken as a whole, the fundamental shortcoming of Bezos’s vision is the consistent prioritisation of financial imperatives over any other standards. Hitherto, Amazon’s proudly data-driven approach was perhaps the fullest culmination of what the Frankfurt School described as the triumph of instrumental reason. The central problem of the modern world that these philosophers identify is that means-ends calculations have become the dominating authority over any substantive moral questions. While this critique emerged in the mid-20th century, it remains no less relevant for understanding Amazon’s breathtaking financial success as well as its moral lacuna. More than virtually any other company, Amazon has proudly quantified its products, employees, and customers to unprecedented levels; indeed, a popular mantra displayed in many Amazon offices is: ‘In God we trust. All others must bring data’. This approach may be the source of Jeff Bezos’s vast wealth, but it also lies at the heart of the ethical critiques directed at Amazon over the past few years. If drawing on German continental philosophy seems all too abstract here, it might be worth suggesting that Bezos appears in need of his grandfather’s reminder that ‘it’s harder to be kind than clever’.

MATHIAS GJESDAL HAMMER is studying International Relations at Balliol College. He used to think the British complained too much about the weather until he moved to Oxford.

Art by Kathleen Quaintance


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