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Jeff Bezos to the Planet’s Rescue

$10 billion will serve to save the planet, rebuild the public image of Amazon’s CEO and, some suggest, put him in charge of global politics.
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Cover of Forbes Magazine from 9/30/2018 © dennizn / Shutterstock

February 19, 2020 05:34 EDT

Jeff Bezos has apparently realized that for his customers to retain the level of disposable income required to ensure their continued capacity to order goods from Amazon, their survival might be a critical factor. Not everyone can spend $165 million on a residence that will never suffer from a lack of water or be threatened by rising tides. For those who cannot, he has taken the bold initiative of sacrificing nearly 8% of his fortune to save the planet they depend on — unless it is simply for philanthropic self-promotion.

On Instagram, Bezos announced: “I’m committing $10 billion to start and will begin issuing grants this summer. Earth is the one thing we all have in common — let’s protect it, together.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


A monetary device that enables the morally deficient but financially privileged to exploit the moral reputation of the financial underprivileged to improve their own personal or institutional branding.

Contextual Note

It’s too soon to hold Bezos to account on the goals of the foundation because all we know for the moment is that he intends to fund “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” “Any,” especially combined with “possibility,” sounds very inclusive. In this formulation, “any” is a virtual synonym of “every.” The fact of agreeing to fund “any effort that offers a real possibility” literally means that the only ones that won’t be funded are those that fail to offer a “possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”

In its formulation on Instagram, it sounds like pure and absolute generosity, but when it comes to writing the charter of the foundation and allocating the grants, we can expect serious restrictions on what may be considered “any effort.” 

Wealthy people have multiple reasons for investing in philanthropy. Personal or institutional branding often stands out as the prime factor. But contrary to philanthropy’s perception as an act of pure generosity that conveys the image of billionaires giving away their wealth, when well managed, it serves the purpose of protecting one’s wealth and especially of controlling it for one’s family. This is especially true for wealth, such as that of Bezos, that exists principally in the form of industrial or commercial assets. It has become a standard component of every high-profile wealthy individual’s strategy of diversifying their investments.

Some experts have identified as many as 10 different ways in which philanthropy rewards the philanthropist. Contrary to the way the media present Bezos’ promise, none of the 10 hard-earned billions of dollars that the CEO of Amazon is putting into the foundation will disappear from his grasp and dissipate in the already overheated atmosphere. As with almost all philanthropic foundations, grants will be funded primarily out of capital gains, a standard strategy to avoid depletion of capital. With ordinary financial management techniques, $10 billion produces a lot of capital gains, making it dead easy to have one’s cake and eat it. Especially, knowing that it’s the media who will do their damnedest — and free of charge — to spread the frosting on the cake.

A 2017 article in The Atlantic on the financial logic of foundations describes how charities thrive: “Most of their capital doesn’t wind up in grants, but in investments,” and “their biggest impact comes not from the money they give away, but from the far larger pile of assets they hold.” Philanthropy sounds like giving, but, in more ways than one, it tends to be a subtle way not just of holding what you already have and even eventually taking more from others — as Bill Gates did by getting Warren Buffet to put billions into the Gates Foundation — but also admirably fulfills what has become its primary role in the careers of the wealthy: getting attention and good press.

Historical Note

In an article dedicated to this story, The New York Times observes that philanthropy typically “comes in the wake of amassing great fortunes.” It quotes a University of Washington professor, Margaret O’Mara: “This is yet another reminder that we are in a second Gilded Age.” The first Gilded Age, whose name derives from the title of a book by Mark Twain, saw a rapid expansion of the Industrial Revolution, spectacularly enriching a few families who built and ran the monopolies that controlled the key elements of industrial growth: energy, transport, metallurgy and finance. It was also called the age of the robber barons.

In 1914, the mine workers in Ludlow, Colorado, revolted against the ghastly working conditions imposed by their mining company controlled by the Rockefeller family. The resulting crisis brought home to the oil magnate, John D. Rockefeller, and his son John D. Jr., the need to improve the family’s public image. At the end of the 19th century, Rockefeller was deemed the richest man in the world. The American public had come to perceive him as the incarnation of evil because of his predatory business practices and his inhuman disregard for the welfare of the laborers who produced his wealth.

Following the Ludlow riots, Rockefeller hired Ivy Lee, the first man who billed himself as a public relations expert, to transform his image. Lee brilliantly got to work turning the devil incarnate into an angel glowing with heavenly virtue. As Bill Moyers recounted decades ago in a fascinating documentary on the birth of the age of public relations, he accomplished this essentially by pushing the theme of philanthropy.

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By the time of Rockefeller’s death, the media described him as “a public benefactor devoting millions to science, education and philanthropy.” The news of that day explains that “oil was the foundation of the vast wealth Rockefeller used to help others.” With the assistance of the media, the public came to believe that the essential reason Rockefeller accumulated his wealth in the first place was to be in a position “to help others” as “a man who devoted his fortune to the progress of humanity.”

The world will now have to wait at least until this summer to know what kinds of projects Jeff Bezos intends to reward with the first of his grants. Will the $10 billion he has put on the table have enough impact to save the planet? Akshat Rathi, writing for Bloomberg, doesn’t think so, but he predicts it will give Bezos “the power to heavily influence the direction that climate philanthropies take as a whole.” In other words, it puts him in the position of being a top decision-maker on how humanity deals with the impending crisis.

Rathi has talked to many people since Monday’s announcement and tells us that “most experts I spoke to say that the most effective use of Bezos’s money could be on politics.” Ultimately, Rathi concludes that it will be about Bezos “Putting climate-friendly politicians into office in the U.S. and across the world.” 

Does anyone detect even a sliver of irony in this conclusion published by the journal called Bloomberg? It recommends that the world’s richest billionaire — twice as wealthy as Michael Bloomberg himself — takes on the responsibility of designating the world leaders who will save the planet from the fate imposed on it by a runaway economic system, the very system that has provided the billionaire saviors with their fortunes.

The first thing on this revised agenda will inevitably be to make sure Mike Bloomberg gets the Democratic nomination and defeats Trump. Even though it’s a very short-term project, between billionaires anything is possible. Unless Bezos is thinking that it’s the first step in his own 2024 campaign.

[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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