MacKenzie Bezos, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has signed the “Giving Pledge,” promising to donate at least half of the fortune she received after her separation from Jeff to charity. This is many billions more than the $2 billion Jeff, literally the richest person in the world, has pledged to give to charity. It’s also not nearly enough.
Big Philanthropy is simply plutocracy, “an exercise of power by the wealthy that is unaccountable, non-transparent, donor-directed, perpetual, and tax-subsidized,” Stanford professor Rob Reich, one of the faculty directors of the university’s Center for Ethics in Society, told The Atlantic. But let’s give Bezos, like we give Bill and Melinda Gates, the benefit of the doubt: Let’s believe that she’s a humanitarian, and that she’s trying to help humanity. Then why isn’t she giving more?
It’s true that half of $37 billion is more money than I’ll ever give to charity in my life, and that I’m unlikely to donate half my net worth anytime soon. But I’m not a capitalist; I don’t exploit workers; and I’m not a billionaire. Statistically speaking, none of us are. Billionaires are simply illogical. Money loses coherency at that level — not to mention numbers themselves.
We’re not even talking about the comparatively “impoverished” 1 percent, the millionaires. A billionaire like Jeff Bezos — who hasn’t signed the “Giving Pledge” himself — could lose over 99 percent of their wealth and still have over a billion dollars. Try to imagine how much of a difference an extra $1,000 a week would make for you — either to receive or to lose — and then realize that even with only $1 billion, Bezos could spend $1 million a week for 20 years before going broke. And that’s without taking into consideration interest.
Which is assuming that spending that kind of money is humanly possible. Even the wildest luxury goods imaginable — diamond-encrusted sports cars, ultra-luxury yachts, private islands — won’t get you to a billion.
Statistically speaking, you don’t need it, either. According to more than 1.7 million people surveyed by Gallup World Poll, “optimal emotional well-being” is achieved between $60,000 and $75,000 a year, with $95,000 a year ideal for “life evaluation.” At that rate, the $1 billion left over from Jeff Bezos’s hypothetical 99 percent donation — or a 97 percent one by MacKenzie — would last over 10,000 years.
Billionaires don’t acquire such unimaginable levels of wealth in a vacuum. The giving of wealth under capitalism is funded by the stealing of wealth, and Amazon is one of the best examples: the company neither treats its workers well nor pays them enough, and the fruits of that exploitation wind up directly in Bezos’s wallet. And, of course, they don’t pay taxes.
Anyone who chooses to be a billionaire has chosen to keep a psychologically inconceivable amount of money for themselves. That kind of wealth should never escape the laboring hands that actually produce it in the first place. No one on Earth deserves praise for donating billions of dollars because absolutely no one on Earth should have billions of dollars to donate in the first place.
There will always be a contradiction between the benefits of philanthropy and the forces of oppression that enable them. Sometimes these contradictions are more direct than others: While both of the Bezoses have funded homeless shelters — one of the acts of charity MacKenzie mentions in her pledge — Amazon itself, to avoid paying a little more in taxes, has helped kill city bills that would fund the very kind of affordable housing that could actually eliminate shelters.
And that’s just how most billionaires prefer it. “If you have a mission you can do it with government, you can do it with nonprofit or for-profit,” Jeff Bezos told CityLab in 2018. “If you can figure out how to do it with for-profit that has a lot of advantages: It’s self-sustaining.” And if you can figure out how to do it through an L.L.C., like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, you get a private investment vehicle, free from oversight or disclosure requirements and totally under personal control.
Which brings the issue back to why philanthropy is plutocracy to begin with: Why should a community’s own elected government be involved in shaping their community, when for-profits like Amazon can do it for them?
If you believe that philanthropy is a force for good, then billionaires like Jeff and MacKenzie are hardly giving anything at all; and if you believe that philanthropy is a force for control, then they’re giving too much. Either way, the real problem is the same: Billionaire philanthropy shouldn’t be possible in the first place, and the petty charities of capitalism will never fix the problem when capitalism itself is the problem.