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The $2 billion Bezos Day One fund might do a great job at helping the homeless and educating preschoolers from low-income families. Or it might be a bust. It’s obviously too early to make any sort of reasonable prediction about whether Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos will succeed as a philanthropists.
For critics, however, all that is pretty much beside the point. The effort is inherently “morally complicated.” Some see it as a tax dodge on the Amazon founder’s $160 billion fortune. They would prefer — in the name of “democratic accountability” or some such — for Uncle Sam to somehow grab a big chunk of that massive wealth to fund government efforts to help preschoolers and the homeless. (As if Bezos’ efforts wouldn’t be accountable to the democratic process that produces laws and regulations or accountable to parents who voluntarily choose to enroll their kids.)
There’s also an objection to the private sector getting involved — Jeff Bezos especially — in the provision of public goods such as education or housing for the homeless. (Critics note Bezos lobbied to kill a $500 per employee tax on Seattle’s largest companies. The proceeds would have gone toward homeless shelters. I think Team Amazon had a point.) The growing anti-tech activist movement views Amazon as a harmful monopoly that’s bad for consumers and its own workers. He can keep his pricey PR ploy. This bit from the Bezos’ announcement, in particular, seems to grate: “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.” What Bezos apparently views as a beneficial promise, the critics see as a threat.
“Customer.” A dirty word to capitalism skeptics, maybe, but savvy businessmen like Bezos understand the centrality of the customer. The Amazon vision, he wrote in his famous 1997 letter to shareholders, “is to build the world’s most customer-centric company.”
It’s a beautiful thing, when you stop to think about it. A virtuous thing, even. Capitalism — what economist Deirdre McCloskey prefers to call “trade-tested betterment” in “Bourgeois Equality” — is “the most altruistic of economic systems because everything is directed toward satisfying the ordinary customer.” A person in business, McCloskey write in “Bourgeois Virtues,” depends on humble listening and “imaginative engagement” with the customer “to guess what they are thinking, to see the witness in them.” Many parents would very much like their schools to more imaginatively engage with their students.
McCloskey recalls how that in late 1980s socialist Bulgaria, department stores had armed guards on every floor to prevent angry customers from attacking “the arrogant and incompetent staff charged with selling shoddy goods that instantly fell apart.” No wonder visitors from such countries were so stunned to visit the American counterparts. McCloskey: “The way a salesperson in an American store greets a customer makes the point: ‘How can I help you?’ It is an instance in miniature of the bourgeois virtues.” I’m looking forward to seeing how the Bezos Day One fund helps its needy customers.Published in