Amazon’s gift to society, it says, is to run its business, which consists of “lowering prices, expanding selection, driving convenience, driving frustration-free packaging, creating Kindle, innovating in web services.” Some people would argue that that’s indeed the case, but you always have to question when someone claims their own self-interest is in the public interest.
And you can see how that ethos leads to the darker practices of the company. Dominant market positions are meant to be leveraged to get ever-more-dominant market positions, at the expense of suppliers and competitors. Governments are meant to be rolled on tax subsidies and tax avoidance. Workers are meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced with robots as soon as possible.
So as the Times asks what kind of $85 billion company doesn’t give money to parks and the United Way, the answer is: The kind of company that fights to avoid paying sales taxes for schools and firefighters. The kind of company that puts ambulances outside its warehouses to ferry the inevitable overworked heat victims to the hospital and then argues with the doctors about how they treat their patients so as to avoid triggering an OSHA report.
This anecdote is revealing about Amazon’s corporate culture, and it comes from an on-the-record executive:
Several current and former Amazon employees said they have wanted to change the company culture to encourage more giving. But colleagues told them not to bother — they’d be better off figuring out how to do good on their own.
“I kind of tested the waters by asking around and I got a sense it’s not worth pursuing,” Kintan Brahmbhatt, head of products for Amazon’s IMDb Everywhere initiative, recalled last year…
He asked about arranging to have charitable donations automatically deducted from his paychecks. But he learned that employees who do paycheck donations are charged a 6 percent fee from a company that processes them for Amazon.
While Amazon doesn’t donate much time or money to its community, it also isn’t involved much in the kind of local corporate pooh-bah stuff like the Chamber of Commerce or Washington Roundtable. Unsurprisingly, though, Bezos personally gave $100,000 to defeat a proposal to levy a state income tax on the rich. Washington state has by far the most regressive tax system in the country, taxing poor people seven times as much as we tax the rich, as a proportion of income.
If you’re in the poorest 20 percent of Washingtonians, you pay an average 17.3 percent of your income in state and local taxes. If you’re in the top 1 percent, like Bezos or Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer or Howard Schultz and on and on, you pay 2.6 percent (and that surely overstates how much those super-rich folks actually pay). Lucky duckies, indeed. The state income tax Bezos helped defeat would have meant the richest 1 percent would have paid a little less than half the tax rate of the poorest 20 percent, up from one-seventh.
There is one big local donation the Times reports: The company pledged a couple million dollars to the University of Washington for endowed professorships in “machine learning.” That ought to help get its robots going, at least. Bezos is also dropping $42 million on a clock in a mountain in West Texas that will supposedly work for 10,000 years. I’m not kidding.
The Morning Call’s excellent expose on working conditions in an Amazon warehouse near Allentown, Pennsylvania, showed how the company’s low-paid workers face bodily injury and the constant threat of termination. The Times follows up with a terrific report from Campbellsville, Kentucky that shows the Pennsylvania warehouse was no rogue unit:
A former warehouse safety official said in-house medical staff were asked to treat wounds, when possible, with bandages rather than refer workers to a doctor for stitches that could trigger federal reports. And warehouse officials tried to advise doctors on how to treat injured workers.
“We had doctors who refused to work with us because they would have managers call and argue with them,” he said.