OPINION: Does Amazon Minus Bezos Equal Greater Civic Engagement?

by Lola E. Peters

Microsoft and Amazon have one thing in common: They once had their own idea. Ever since, they’ve profited only by taking other people’s technology and ideas, either by gobbling up or undercutting their competition. 

Tuesday, Feb. 2, Jeff Bezos announced his departure from the company he founded. A company that revolutionized retail so much it just delivered the new computer mouse I ordered this morning. Unthinkable 15 years ago. There will be much said and written about his resignation as CEO of Amazon. Can the company survive without him (Answer: Of course it can.)? What will change with his departure (Answer: Amazon will no longer be seen as the behemoth run by a behemoth.)? I’ll leave those prognostications to others. My interest is more focused on the impact Bezos’ philosophy has had on our region.

Before Amazon, one of the hallmarks of our region was the high level of civic engagement and philanthropy by all the large corporations. Boeing, U.P.S., Costco, REI all gave generously to local nonprofit organizations, actively participated on civic boards, and encouraged their senior staff to do the same. 

Then along came Jeff Bezos, with his libertarian philosophy that paying his executives well enough so they could participate in civic life was to be the extent of his institutional contribution. Until, of course, his company was impacted by calls for fair wages. Suddenly he saw the need for civic engagement, in the form of bully tactics. Pramila Jayapal and Kshama Sawant must be rolling in laughter at Bezos’ reference to Amazon’s $15-per-hour minimum wage in his exit email. As if Amazon didn’t go screaming and kicking in every public forum. 

Bit by bit other local corporations followed suit and changed their giving and civic engagement philosophy. After breaking up with us and moving to Chicago, Boeing was first to follow Amazon’s lead and disengage from its civic responsibility, decreasing its donations and eliminating internal jobs tasked with community involvement. Since then many nonprofits have seen a decrease in corporate support as the flood of tech companies engorged our population and brought little, if any, sense of community responsibility.

That very disconnection from community permitted executives to take damaging action without anticipating the consequences and eventual backlash. Had Amazon been active as an institution, they could have foreseen how inundating our region with people from other parts of the country, and world, would result in homelessness, and food insecurity for existing residents. They would have known about the lengthening lines at food banks, social service organizations, and other bellwethers of impending crisis. They would have asked about the butterfly effect of forcing small, community businesses out of business. They would have seen how the rising, exorbitant home prices their new staff were willing and able to pay were undercutting people in communities of Color and their ability to keep or buy homes in their central and South Seattle neighborhoods. They would have helped our region plan for the expansion, rather than forcing it on us then abdicating any community-wide responsibility for the damage done.

Does Bezos’ departure as CEO change any of this? It’s hard to know. CEO-to-be Andy Jassy, whose Wikipedia page has already been updated, has hands-on civic participation bona fides. He is part owner of Seattle’s new NHL team, the Kraken, and he serves as CEO of Rainier Prep, a charter school set in one of Seattle’s poorest communities. But will his board allow the company to pivot in that same direction? 

And it isn’t as though Bezos is going away. He still holds a majority of the company’s stock and will shadow Jassy with the “executive chairman” title, essentially maintaining himself as Jassy’s boss. 

The only obvious outcome of the change is in public, and perhaps legislative, perception. As Amazon, along with its cousins Google and Facebook, faces more scrutiny for its local, regional, national, and international impact, its public face will be one of the regular millionaires in our region, no longer the richest man on the planet ever. 

Future hope for those of us wishing Amazon would take more institutional responsibility, as the citizen the U.S. Supreme Court declares it to be, might be weaving its way among Amazon’s employees, who may be tired of working for a company standing on the sidelines as massive issues of economic and social inequity go unaddressed. They may demand action as they come to recognize their own roles in creating the problems to be solved. Like their kin in other fields of mathematics and science, many were inspired to become technogeeks to bring new tools to a broken world.

Finally this: Happy belated birthday to Andy Jassy. May the year ahead bring you wisdom above knowledge and empathy above compassion, and may the true web of interconnected humanity guide your actions.

Lola Peters is an editor-at-large for the South Seattle Emerald.

The featured image is attributed to theirry ehrmann under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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