Always a pleasure to hear from rejected Paul Verhoeven villain Jeff Bezos, who this week announced an initiative designed to cast him as Earth’s first trillion-dollar sociopath. OK, I’ve paraphrased slightly. The Amazon boss has launched something called the Day One fund, which feels like the will-this-do title for the will-this-do initiative it is. Bezos has long been criticised for his glaring lack of a philanthropic arm, long after he became the richest man in modern history. A year ago Jeff seemed at such a loss as to how not to be an unmitigated arse that he was asking internet users for ideas. He seems to have ignored all the respondents who said, “Stop treating your workers like rubbish.”
Do you remember the beginning of Verhoeven’s Robocop, before things started to go really tits-up in increasingly automated future Detroit? There’s a company that basically does everything, called Omni Consumer Products. They begin providing services that might reasonably be imagined the job of the state. A movie ensues. Anyway, here we are. Fresh from announcing that Amazon’s getting into healthcare, Jeff has decided to help homeless people and low-income communities with donations and not-for-profit schools.
“We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” he explains, encouragingly. “The child will be the customer.” Mmm. Customers who bought this nonsense also bought the line that Elon Musk is a humanitarian, and that Mark Zuckerberg went to crucial early-primary states last yearbecause he wanted to “share stories” with ordinary Americans.
Off the top of my head, Jeff has already had two very clear chances to help homeless people and low-income families. The first was in Seattle, where Amazon is headquartered, and where the firm recently killed a proposed city tax on big firms to alleviate the homeless crisis by threatening to halt a building project. The second was by simply paying his own low-income workers better. As the old saying goes, charity begins in aisle 89 of the Amazon warehouse, where workers are so terrified of being docked points for nipping to the bathroom that they’re pissing in bottles.
But guys like Jeff don’t want governments, or properly paid worker ants, taking credit for what is, after all, his bounty. The rule you learn on Day One of being a billionaire philanthropist is that you don’t give money via pay packets to the poor people who literally already work for you. They’d only spend it poorly. However, if they want to humbly queue up and apply for it via some thinly disguised hardship grant that you take the applause for, that’s a different matter. Dignity is something you hand out, not something that others get to earn. I missed this bit in The Wealth of Nations; I guess there’s a sealed section.
And the warm glow doesn’t even end there for you. There is an entire industry of confected philanthropic awards set up to honour givers such as Jeff. The rest of us need simply wait for the first story of an Amazon worker who has to throw themselves on the mercy of Bezos’s charitable arm in order to bump themselves up to living-wage territory. Consider that the ouroborosof giving a toss. Maybe the story will appear in the Washington Post, the totemically revered newspaper Bezos owns, and which he receives a ridiculous amount of credit for simply leaving editorially alone. And maybe it won’t.
There is, of course, a third way in which all the tech gazillionaires who want to make the world a better place could do so, but from which they all somehow seem to recoil: tax! Last year Amazon’s UK profits trebled but its tax bill fell.
How can anyone who doesn’t pay decent tax be referred to as a “philanthropist”? Sorry to bring Jeff and all the others down to the level of the little people – the nurses and teachers and bricklayers and so on – who do pay a proper whack of their meagre salaries toward the societies in which we all, including Jeff, live. But you don’t get to order turbo-accountants to chisel every last legally loopholed cent off your responsibilities, then swan in with a tiny percentage of what you’ve saved and expect to be treated like the effing messiah.
Looked at in the round, Jeff is just another emissary of that specific class who make you ill just so they can sell you the cure. See also Gwyneth Paltrow, whose Goop website is always detailing madam’s various health issues, then trying to flog the fringe lunacies that presumably cause half of them. And see also the Conservative party, who’ve spent the past few years breaking everything then telling you only they can fix it.
The greatest trick all this lot ever pulled is convincing people that they are the answer, as opposed to the problem. Incredible to think that as recently as 10 minutes ago, people were still chummily tweeting Musk along the lines of, “Counting on you to get us to Mars and escape Trump, dude!”
Guys? Elon’s not going to save you. Elon’s going to call you a “pedo” if you have the temerity to rescue some kids without using his non-bendy mini-submarine. Elon is – how to put this? – an intergalactic shit. In the fantasy realms where he has the ability to colonise Mars, he’s going to take fellow intergalactic shits like Jeff up there, in a sort of tech-bro version of the Rapture, and the last thing the rest of humanity is going to see as he blasts off is the word PEDOS, spelled out in a nuclear-firework goodbye.
So yes, I know I’m hardly breaking this to you, but we haven’t discovered a new breed of good guy. The new boss isn’t the same as the old boss; he’s arguably much worse. And this isn’t philanthropy – it’s fauxlanthropy.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist