It’s Jeff Bezos’s Planet Now

In an age of political dysfunction, the Amazon founder has begun to subsume the powers of the state.

Jeff Bezos
Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

About the author: Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of World Without Mind and How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.

On Monday, Jeff Bezos announced the creation of the Bezos Earth Fund, which will disperse $10 billion in the name of combatting climate change. The fund is a triumph of philanthropy—and a perfect emblem of a national failing.

Or rather, a series of national failings. In a healthy democracy, the world’s richest man wouldn’t be able to painlessly make a $10 billion donation. His fortune would be mitigated by the tax collector; antitrust laws would constrain the growth of his business. Instead of relying on a tycoon to bankroll the national response to an existential crisis, there would be a national response.

But in an age of political dysfunction, Bezos has begun to subsume the powers of the state. Where the government once funded the ambitious exploration of space, Bezos is leading that project, spending a billion dollars each year to build rockets and rovers. His company, Amazon, is spearheading an experimental effort to fix American health care; it will also spend $700 million to retrain workers in the shadow of automation and displacement. Meanwhile, swaths of the federal government have contracted with Amazon to keep data on the company’s servers. Bezos is providing the vital infrastructure of state. When Amazon locates its second headquarters on the Potomac, staring across the river at the capital, it will provide a perfect geographic encapsulation of the new balance of power.

It is possible to watch Jeff Bezos’s public-spirited commitments and respond: Well, at least someone is doing something. And isn’t a private government run by Bezos preferable to a public government run by Donald Trump?

Trumpism may indeed pose the most immediate danger; the growing concentration of power in one man, however, is hardly a democratic path. And whereas Trump is curbed by Congress, courts, and elections, there is no meaningful public oversight of Bezos’s power. His investments and donations—not to mention the dominance of his sprawling firm and his ownership of one of the nation’s most important newspapers—give him an outsize role in shaping the human future.

Thus far, the extent of the public’s knowledge about the new foundation largely derives from an Instagram post by its namesake. There’s no clear sense of the projects it will bankroll, even though a contribution of that scale will inevitably set the agenda of academics and nongovernmental organizations. Bezos’s personal biases—his penchant for technological solutions, his skepticism of government regulation—will likely shape how the Bezos Earth Fund disperses cash. And that will, in turn, shape how activists and researchers craft their grant proposals, how they attempt to please a funder who can float their operations.

Even as Bezos funds his initiative, Amazon has a strong interest in shaping the climate debate, so that whatever government response eventually emerges doesn’t injure its business. (To cover its right flank, last year the company co-sponsored the annual gala of a climate-denying think tank.) After all, Amazon’s constellation of servers has a massive carbon footprint, about the same as that of a wealthy European nation; the company is transforming global patterns of consumption, so that cheap goods can almost instantaneously arrive at any doorstep. Even if Amazon aims to slash its own emissions, it’s creating an economy that seems likely to undermine its stated goal of carbon neutrality. A reasonable debate about planetary future would at least question the wisdom of the same-day delivery of plastic tchotchkes made in China. Then there are the policies that permit companies, like Amazon, to pay virtually nothing in taxes—revenue that would ideally fund, say, a Green New Deal. It hardly seems likely that the Bezos Earth Foundation will seek to erode the very basis of the fortune that funds it.

A skeptical response to the Bezos Earth Fund doesn’t preclude the hope that it will do real good. Michael Bloomberg’s climate philanthropy has played an important role in shutting down coal-fired power plants. And unlike Obama-era policy, Bloomberg’s efforts have proved difficult for the Trump administration to roll back. Perhaps Bezos will find similarly effective vehicles for injecting his money. Given the influence of the Koch brothers and the rest of the fossil-fuel industry, the political fight over climate policy is in desperate need of a bottomless benefactor.

Bezos’s emergence as the self-styled protector of the common good is the culmination of a political era. In these years of polarization and dysfunction, the public keeps turning to saviors who present themselves as outsiders and promise transformation. Trump, of course, billed himself as this sort of salvific figure. But instead of curing voters of this yearning, he seems to have exacerbated it. The current temptation comes in the form of billionaires who exude competence, which is why Bloomberg’s advertisements have so quickly propelled him into presidential contention. And it comes in the public’s willingness to cede ever greater responsibilities to the likes of Bezos. That the public seems indifferent to the dangers of a growing plutocracy is perhaps the greatest national failing of them all.