Jeff Bezos seems to have run out of things to colonize here on Earth.
His company, Amazon, now commands almost half of America’s online retail purchases, according to one estimate. Amazon has acquired Whole Foods, a major grocery chain, and the powerhouse Hollywood studio MGM. Bezos has also bought The Washington Post and is now the richest person in the world.
So, with little left to acquire on this planet, he’s turning his sights to outer space.
Bezos announced Monday that he’ll be joining the first manned flight of Blue Origin, his space company, next month, along with his brother. Media coverage quickly focused on the fact that Bezos will beat out other male billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson in entering outer space first. But, from a moral perspective, Bezos should really be spending more time looking down rather than up.
According to the World Bank, 689 million people are living in extreme poverty, which is defined as less than $1.90 per day. Half of them are children. The coronavirus pandemic has demolished two decades of progress, pushing an additional 120 million people into extreme poverty — a number that is only expected to rise by the end of the year.
With an estimated net worth of $187 billion, there’s a whole lot Bezos could do to change that — especially given the time he’ll now have on his hands since he’s stepping down from his role as Amazon’s chief executive.
For example, a gift of just $58 to a nonprofit like the International Rescue Committee — an organization I support despite a net worth far below that of Bezos, and hope you will too — can send a child to school for an entire year. Just imagine what could be done with $1 billion — the amount Bezos once said he was investing each year in his rocket development. In fact, the Brookings Institution calculated that billionaires who are worth far less than Bezos could singlehandedly lower the poverty rates in their countries significantly.
In the United States, one-third of wealthy American households stepped up their charitable giving to organizations helping others meet their basic needs last year in recognition of the vast challenges spawned by the pandemic, according to Bank of America and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. One might have expected Bezos to focus more on the good he could do, considering how richly he profited off of the pandemic: Amazon saw a nearly 200% increase in profits as Americans shopped online during the pandemic.
With $187 billion, the reality is that Bezos doesn’t have to choose between helping others and building his own space enterprise. And he does make significant charitable contributions — notably, the single-largest charitable contribution in 2020 came from Bezos, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy (a $10 billion gift aimed at fighting climate change). But for Bezos to throw his money so wantonly into the solar system is a bit of a sickening choice at a time in the world when people have been dying of Covid in India due to lax of oxygen.
For a better model of what to do with his money, Bezos might look at his ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott — who, along with her new husband, Dan Jewett, has signed the Giving Pledge, promising to donate the majority of their wealth. In 2020, Scott gave away almost $6 billion. Recently, she has focused on supporting historically Black colleges and universities, proving that she has the ability to empathize with people whose experiences are different from her own.
Meanwhile, Bezos has been making global headlines for the lavish lifestyle he’s enjoying with girlfriend Lauren Sanchez, spending $255 million on luxury Los Angeles mansions last year while the world was ravaged by a pandemic, and investing in a new yacht believed to cost about $500 million. But it’s not just about Bezos’s spending. Bezos is uniquely positioned to show leadership among billionaires and the very wealthy about what their money can do, especially in a time of crisis that has spelled big profits for them — and his actions don’t seem to give any indication he’s planning to exercise this power for the greater good in ways that it’s obvious he could.
Bezos’ absence from the Giving Pledge is especially remarkable given some of the problems his own company has inflicted. Amazon has, of course, been able to undercut the prices of many retailers because it is mostly an online retailer and therefore avoids the cost of storefronts. As a result, it’s been blamed for putting businesses from independent bookstores to major chains like Sears and JC Penney out of business. And, even as it has earned billions of dollars, Amazon paid no federal taxes in 2018, according to a 2019 analysis by the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (it did pay slightly more than 1% of its profits in taxes in 2019). The National Labor Relations Board this year also deemed Amazon to have illegally retaliated against staffers who raised concerns about warehouse safety. (The company said it had fired them for “repeatedly violating internal policies,” and not for criticizing working conditions.)
Of course, it’s not too late for Bezos to do better — and stepping away from Amazon (as well as the planet) might give him some new perspective — literally — on what he can do on Earth with his wealth and new-found time. He should strongly consider using his gains to help those less fortunate (a message that also goes for other billionaires looking to board their own rides to space any time soon).
Bezos is certainly an admirably successful businessman — so successful, in fact, that he can afford to go to outer space while others go hungry. But his latest exploit makes clear that for now, he’s hardly a successful human being.