Saturday, December 15, 2018
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State of the Art: Why Jeff Bezos Should Push for Nobody to Get as Rich as Jeff Bezos

“We have technology that has allowed us to create vastly more wealth for society,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy. “But there’s no economic law that says that these benefits will be distributed evenly — and it’s worked out that some people have gotten most of the benefits and a lot of other people have been left behind.”

But economics isn’t destiny, he said.

“Technology has led to some of this concentration, but since it makes the pie bigger, you could make everyone better off simultaneously — you could make the poor better off and the rich better off — and whether we do that is a matter of policy,” he said.

As Annie Lowrey pointed out in The Atlantic last month, economic policy is currently tilted toward benefiting people like Mr. Bezos far more than the hundreds of thousands of people who work in his warehouses. Among other policies, Amazon has capitalized on a weakened union movement and a low minimum wage, which has allowed it to expand by hiring an army of workers for its warehouses.

Amazon said that on average, its full-time warehouse workers made $15 an hour, including wages and other compensation; the company also said it provided full benefits, including tuition for career skills, to those workers. A $15 wage is higher than at some other retailers, but it is lower than estimates for what a family in the United States needs to meet its basic needs, known as a living wage.

“They’re not providing the sort of high-wage, middle-class jobs to a broad swath of individuals that we used to associate with corporate success,” Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard, said of Amazon and other high-flying tech firms. “What we’re seeing is not the sharing of the productivity benefits that we used to see in the past. And that may be even more galling than the concentration of wealth.”

How could Mr. Bezos address these issues through philanthropy? Mr. Giridharadas suggested several liberal economic policy ideas, among them efforts to strengthen unions, equalize how we pay for education, increase minimum-wage laws and push for a more progressive tax system. Both Mr. Gates and Warren Buffett — the second- and third-wealthiest people in the world — have said they should pay higher taxes.

Those ideas strike me as unlikely; Mr. Bezos is a far-thinking innovator, but he has expressed little interest in near-term political questions.