Monday, July 26, 2021

The Conudrum of Jeff Bezos

People aren't always the way we pigeon-hole them to be.

Jeff Bezos went up into space in his giant dick-rocket - and unfortunately, he returned.  It is not that I dislike him personally - I have no idea what his personality, if any, is like - but I dislike the way he runs Amazon, which tries to deceive me with every single checkout into either signing up for "prime" or paying for shipping.  Deceptive practices usually mean deceptive people.

I recently ran into a guy who went to work for an Amazon warehouse.  He left after two months - the last of the dozen or so employees they had hired in his group.  Sounds like my experience at United Parcel.  Turnover at Amazon is apparently staggeringly high.

He went for the job interview two months earlier, wearing a nice shirt and tie - after all, it was a job interview, right?  The other dozen applicants were not so nicely dressed.  Some were wearing tank tops, others in flip-flops.  More than one smelled like they hadn't bathed in days.  All twelve were hired.  Most quit within a month.  He and one other guy were all that was left after two months.  The work was grueling and the pay low and the benefits nonexistent.

They promised him a full-time position, but only if he made quota.  He had to "pick" 400 items an hour, which means about one every nine seconds.  The bins he had to pick from might contain several different items that all were about the same size.  It was the smaller items that were the hardest - tiny things that all looked alike, and you had to sort through the bin to get the right thing.  This cut into your picking rate.   Since he never consistently made 400 picks per hour, they never offered him a full-time position, and thus no benefits.   How convenient for Amazon!

His story was interesting and correlated with my experiences camping.  We were in one run-down trailer park in California, and most of the people living there - in old, dilapidated RVs - walked across the street every morning (or evening) to the giant Amazon warehouse.  Like the goods inside, they too were being warehoused - not really living, but just getting by, one day at a time.  This whole "gig economy" thing is about the same - people driving for Uber and living in their cars.  The only people making money at these gigs are the people at the top.  Sure, early on you might do OK, but then they change the rules, much as airlines change frequent flyer miles redemption terms.   You never win.

What struck me as odd about the whole situation is that Jeff Bezos is supposedly a "liberal" and owns the liberal Washington Post, whose masthead he changed to Democracy Cries In The Darkness.  And I think, at this stage, we can freely call the Washington Post "liberal" and Fox News "conservative" and toss away this pretense that our news outlets are trying to be impartial and neutral, in news reporting as well as opinion pieces.

Liberals are supposed to be for the people, right?  Pro-worker, pro-union, and pro-family?  Yet Bezos is a union-buster with the best of them - perhaps putting our robber barons of the 20th century to shame with his effectiveness.  Worse yet, he is (or is trying to be) a monopolist.  Dominating the online sales market, he has now raised prices as well - raking in billions of dollars and expanding his empire to include everything from computer services for the government to rockets into (suborbital) space.  We haven't seen this type of conglomerate-building since, well, since before the great depression.

Of course, the labels "liberal" or "conservative" or "Republican" or "Democrat" are deceiving.  I grew up in Republican New York State, where governor Rockefeller lead the liberal wing of the GOP.  Big government would solve all our problems, and Albany would have all the answers.  Later on, next door in Massachusetts, Republican Governor Mitt Romney would institute a government-run health care system that today would be (and is) decried by "conservatives."

People can't be pigeon-holed into neat compartments.  Not every Republican is against abortion and for Qanon.  Not every Democrat is against the death penalty and in favor of open borders.  People pretty much lay out on a spectrum of beliefs, and they usually pick the candidate most closely aligned with the beliefs they hold most dear.  I have Catholic friends who voted for Trump, not because he is a Godly man, but because to them, the most important issue in the world is abortion - and they wanted the Supreme Court packed with conservatives.  Their own priest told them, from the pulpit, to vote for Trump.  So they did.

But when January 6th came around, they quickly pulled down their Trump yard signs.  Everyone has their limits.

What motivates Jeff Bezos?  I mean, besides money and fame and whatnot?   Why would he own a newspaper championing the left, when his practices are, well, about as right-wing as a businessman can get?

Some on the right might argue there is a method to this madness.  I mentioned before that things like food stamps and ADC and other programs to help the poor are often also a big help to low-wage employers.  Walmart can pay its employees less, if the employees get a subsidy from the government in the form of food stamps or an Obamaphone or whatnot.  And the Walmart employee website has (or at least had) helpful links for employees to click on, to help them obtain these benefits.  Why bother offering people full-time jobs, where health insurance could cost the company $20,000 per year per employee?  Make them part-time and they qualify for a full subsidy on Obamacare.  Pretty neat trick, eh?

But it goes further than that - at least according to some folks. I am not so sure that the leftists like Bezos are that Machiavellian.   Some argue that leftist thinking - which posits that the government should provide cradle-to-grave services in a Socialist state - is designed to get people to be dependent on the government for basic survival.  Once you have people "hooked" on government programs, they argue, it is a lot easier to keep them in line and get them to vote for you.  So every election season, the Democrats trot out all the welfare benefits they are providing to the poor, and insinuate the poor should therefor vote for them. And of course, Republicans are raked over the coals for trying to cut these benefits.  Unfortunately, the poor are very inconsistent voters - if they vote at all, they are likely to vote for the "wrong" candidate - particularly poor rural whites. So I am not sure it is a theory that works.

The net result (according to this theory) is that people stop providing for themselves and look to the government as the first (and only) step in solving their personal problems.  Once conditioned to believe that government can solve any problem, they stop looking for other solutions - such as taking their own initiative or changing their own behavior.  For example, the opioid epidemic isn't the fault of those abusing the drugs, but the fault of government for not providing more drug treatment programs!  Of course, those same rightists who advance such theories would never suggest that perhaps the real problem is a system that rewards a few companies (and one family) billions of dollars for promoting prescription opioid abuse.

Like I said, it's a theory, and not one I necessarily subscribe to.  But it has certain angles that make a little sense.  And in understanding Bezos, maybe some of this is true.  By owning the Washington Post - which he promises to take a "hands on" approach to, now that he has "stepped down" as CEO of Amazon - he can whitewash his reputation, much as Andrew Carnegie did by building libraries, with money he made off the backs of the people.   In fact, most billionaires do this - listen to the list of "sponsors" on NPR sometime - most of them are foundations based on the remnants of wealth of robber-barons of the 20th Century.  The Rockefeller foundation does good deeds, John D. Rockefeller did horrific things to make his millions.  The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation helps people in third-world countries.   Microsoft used monopoly practices to extract huge amounts of money from the wallet of every American - and provided a third-rate operating system in exchange.  Bezos is just the latest example of these sharp-practicing businessmen trying to take the tarnish off their reputation.

The conundrum isn't just for us to decipher, but for Bezos himself.  He champions the little guy, but at the same time, union-busts.  But if Amazon were unionized, costs would skyrocket and he would have to raise prices dramatically - allowing other competitors, particularly smaller mom-and-pop operations to get a foot in the door.  Maybe this is already happening.  I bought a set of tires online recently, and Amazon, TireRack, and Walmart all wanted $258 a tire (no price-fixing here, folks!) while a small company in Wisconsin wanted only $208.  Bezos, or more precisely, Amazon, needs to keep costs low, so they can undercut the competition and run the small player out of business - the same game plan that John D. Rockefeller used to create Standard Oil.

Of course, Bezos claims he is "helping the little guy" by providing us with all this cheap crap made in China, delivered to our door, where porch pirates can then steal it.  No problem!  Amazon is asking landlords for keys to get into your apartment building, so your precious new piece of electronic crap doesn't get swiped.

That is the problem with Amazon, however.  It isn't poor people being helped by low prices and free shipping (if the prices are indeed, actually low and the shipping indeed, actually free) but middle-class people who buy this junk while surfing at the office.  The guy in the warehouse or the guy driving the Amazon truck are not making out as well.   But they are head-and-shoulders above the poor bastard in China who is working in sweatshop conditions for pennies an hour to make us all this enticing junk.  The whole system is based on exploitation - at one part of the planet or another.

As I noted in another posting, I don't buy as much from Amazon as I used to.  If I am shopping for an item, I pick the particular item (often using part number) and them open a plethora of tabs for different shopping venues.  Amazon is usually the last choice.   I often find what I am looking for at a better price on the manufacturer's website or that of a small mom-and-pop online store.   Amazon often has the highest prices.  I only resort to Amazon if there are no other options, or if I want something very quickly.

But of course, Bezos doesn't have to worry about that anymore.  Once you've made your Billions, you can retire and spend the rest of your life setting up foundations and doing good deeds and driving your Ferrari around the deck of your mega-yacht.  Meanwhile, Amazon is taken over by professional managers, who are paid in stock options and will have every incentive to jigger-up the share price, and cut wages and benefits further.  Eventually, this could result in unionization, and Amazon may go the way of Sears and other retailers before it - a slow death that may take decades to occur.

Meanwhile, the Bezos foundation will linger on, for a century or more!

I mentioned before (I think) about the Lemelson foundation.  They also "sponsor" on NPR and are the sponsor of the Smithsonian Museum of American History and also the management school at MIT.  Who is Lemelson?  Well, to hear some people tell it, he is the biggest Patent troll of all time - extorting money from companies right and left, by alleging infringement of his somewhat vaguely-worded Patents.  Whether you believe that or not is not the the point - the point is, once he made his millions (a measly half-billion, while he was alive, according to some sources) he set about to polish his reputation through these donations to institutions which would use his name in return.

Once you have billions and a yacht, and all the fancy cars, the trophy wife (or wives) and the mansions across the globe - then what?  You want people to respect you.  You want to be let into their little club, in Davos or Bohemian Grove or whatever.  I mean, it is what drives Trump - he cannot stand the humiliation of losing an election, so he just claims it didn't happen.  And no matter how many country clubs he buys, they won't let him into the club, which just makes him angrier and angrier.  How this guy hasn't had a major coronary is beyond me.

But getting back to Bezos, I think he wants to polish his reputation as a Benevolent Billionaire.  He's one of us!  Fighting for the little guy with his newspaper, while at the same time, screwing the little guy with his business practices.  Not only is he screwing the employees, but the suppliers and online merchants - and anyone who dares to compete with him who doesn't have the deep pockets of a Walmart.