Highlander Write-Off: Are billionaires obligated to donate their wealth to charity?

Billionaire baloney: Bezos’ philanthropy is a meager substitute for real action

By: Timothy Hughes, SW

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and richest man in the world, has recently committed to using $10 billion of his personal fortune to fight climate change. Considering Bezos’ relative silence on the issue in the past and the ongoing critique that he and other billionaires are not giving enough, this is a change that has been welcomed by many. Unfortunately, Bezos’ philanthropy, like all billionaire philanthropy, isn’t enough. Bezos and billionaires like him are a direct cause of many of the world’s problems, including climate change. The remediation he proposes is welcome, but empty.

Jeff Bezos is worth approximately $130 billion with a yearly income close to $40 billion. The $10 billion investment he proposes only amounts to 7.7% of his net worth. Obviously, he could be doing more. Bezos could give away 90% of his wealth and still be left with more money than he could spend in a lifetime, assuming he doesn’t decide to create a personal army or purchase a country, which he very well could do. Aside from the U.S. and China, Bezos’ wealth is greater than many countries’ yearly defense spending. Bezos’ wealth is greater than the GDP of 129 countries, including Morocco and Ecuador. His net worth is twice the GDP of Myanmar.

The UN estimates it would take $30 billion yearly to provide food security to every man, woman and child on the planet, effectively ending world hunger. Bezos could pull this off on his yearly income alone, with $10 billion to spare. Again, $10 billion is more than any individual could reasonably spend in a year. The department of Housing and Urban Development estimates it would take a one-time investment of $20 billion to end homelessness in the United States. Clearly, the wealth Jeff Bezos hoards is a force to be reckoned with. Like all billionaires, he could accomplish so much and yet he continues to amass wealth. He must do more, or he must be made to do more.

The ostensible charity Bezos partakes in is also suspect. As the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group said in response to Bezos’ new philanthropic effort, Amazon has threatened to fire employees for speaking out about the company’s role in creating the climate crisis. Bezos funds climate denying think tanks and pollutes the air with the exhaust of jet planes and trucks carrying his cargo. His newest venture is nothing more than a vanity project for the same person who recently bought the most expensive mansion ever sold in California.

One might argue that billionaires earned their money through hard work and should be allowed to do with it what they want without criticism. Truthfully, a person can only amass wealth greater than a billion dollars if they exploit the labor and resources of others. The average Amazon worker in Los Angeles, the city in which Bezos lives, makes $28,000 a year. Not only is this almost 1.5 million times less than Bezos makes in a year, it is $30,000 less than the low-income line of the city. 

To argue that Bezos works over a million times harder than a factory worker or a delivery driver is ridiculous, and to believe that he has any right to exploit working people on the merits of him owning the company is to ignore the true barbarity of the situation. Surely Bezos could afford to pay his workers more and give them better working conditions while still having massive wealth. Instead, he chooses to enrich himself at their expense. He adds to his nearly limitless fortune on the backs of their starvation.

Not only are American workers abused under the rule of billionaires, workers worldwide live in slavery to produce for them, the environment is degraded and our planet is made uninhabitable by their actions. The globalization of companies for profit causes massive greenhouse gas emissions due to travel, unnecessary plundering of the planet’s resources and relocation or elimination of billions of animals. The world’s richest 10% are responsible for more than half of global emissions. The innocent pay the true price while the rich further line their pockets with blood money. 

Bezos’ $10 billion to fight climate change is worth nothing in the face of the damage he and his kind have done to their workers and to the environment. That which he is giving back is dwarfed by the harm he has done. The world’s problems cannot be solved with the pocket change of those who created them. They must give more. They must cease exploiting workers and the world we live on. If not willingly, then by taxes or by other mechanisms. These parasites to society must not be allowed to become more powerful — they are too dangerous.

Courtesy of Jeff Bezos via Instagram

Demanding more donations from billionaires will only lead to increased inequality

By: Christine Tran, SSW

Currently, the U.S. is the home to a couple of the most prominent billionaires who are known to participate in philanthrocapitalism — Mark Zuckerburg, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, to name a few. This isn’t a new concept. Time and time again, billionaires have generously donated a small portion of their fortune to something they consider a good cause.

While some argue that billionaires should escalate their efforts, a closer look reveals how current billionaire philanthropy is as much a business as the companies that created their fortunes in the first place. Billionaires should not be forced to give away a larger percentage of their money because it boosts their power to push forward their own agendas while simultaneously maintaining a positive public image to cover up that their companies contribute to the issues they claim to fight. 

When the public pressures billionaires to give up more of their fortune, it is encouraging them to make use of the loopholes they have developed. Billionaires have long since turned charity donations into a method to avoid taxes. When donating large sums of money, they direct their money to donor advised funds, which allows them access to tax breaks and control over how the money is invested. Billionaires can also choose to donate in stocks and that way they will receive even more tax breaks while avoiding the capital gains tax that comes with selling a stock. So even though their donations are to their own benefit, their perception in the public eye continues to improve. 

An example of the philanthrocapitalism that continues to trouble our society is Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Dominating the headlines in December of 2015, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan published a letter that made it seem like the two would be donating 99% of their shares in Facebook toward promoting equality.

Yet, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the channel the money is funneled through, is not a nonprofit foundation but rather a limited liability company (LLC). The Zuckerberg Chan Initiative, unlike actual charitable organizations, has the right to invest in other companies, make political donations, has no transparency requirements and can avoid income taxes all while Zuckerberg maintains control over where the money goes. 

What isn’t advertised is the influence philanthrocapitalism affords billionaires when they donate to the public. Once again, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has made headlines with the creation of the Bezos Earth fund on Monday, Feb. 17. The fund will disperse $10 billion to organizations working to combat climate change. 

None of this changes the fact that Amazon is one of the largest carbon emitters in the world. In 2018 alone, the company emitted 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere, an amount that is roughly equal to the annual emissions of the country of Norway. 

As seemingly generous as Bezos’ donation is, it is currently not clear if Bezos’ $10 billion commitment includes fighting against the fossil fuel industry, which Amazon considers an important customer. Back in September of 2019, when he announced his plan for Amazon to reduce its carbon footprint, Bezos said that divisions of Amazon would continue to work with oil and gas providers. It is unnerving that the man who is the originator of all these problems is also one of the only people who can fund the fight against climate change. Along with that, Bezos’ donation of $10 billion means he gets to decide what issues and projects are prioritized and there is little chance that Bezos will choose to commit the money to causes that will hurt his own profits. 

One can contend that despite certain hiccups, there is still money going to people in need, but billionaires understand that it is all about how they word their promises. In August 2010, Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates created the Giving Pledge, an invitation for billionaires to publicly commit to giving away most of their wealth during their lifetime. 

While in theory this idea sounds beneficial, nowhere in the pledge does it specify where to or how soon billionaires need to give away their wealth. Therefore, billionaires can promise to donate to public health programs like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or simply to their alma mater. The Giving Pledge is also not legally binding so there are no repercussions for unfulfilled commitments. This is another empty promise made to boost billionaires’ images while they continue to do nothing. 

The public needs to be cautious when encouraging billionaire philanthropy because, like with everything else they do, they turned the gift of giving back into a business. When society allows themselves to be continually funded by the bank accounts of billionaires, people are at the mercy of their whims. Forcing billionaires to funnel more of their fortunes back into the people only tightens the grip they have over the average person. 

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