News broke on Monday that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would be purchasing the Washington Post. (Previous owner Donald Graham is now free to focus on Kaplan, the for-profit education empire specializing in gobbling up taxpayer dollars.)
For many, Bezos is an enigmatic businessman and a gifted entrepreneur who represents all that is great about American industry. In some ways, this description does have merit. While he studied to be a physicist and had a brief stint on Wall Street, his passion was was Amazon.com, which he set up in the garage of his two-bedroom home using tables he made out of doors purchased at Home Depot for around $60 each. As Amazon grew to the titan it is today, so did Bezos’s fame and fortune. By 2011, he was the 13th richest person in the United States, with a net worth of $19.1 billion.
But as Bezos’ wealth has growth, so has his ability to impact politics. While his spending on shaping society has been relatively modest compared to, say, Walmart heirs the Waltons, or New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, he has poured a sizeable amount of money into promoting his views.
What are those views? Like so many tech billionaires, Bezos has been attracted to right-libertarian politics—meaning socially liberal, but in favor of business and privatization. “He's a libertarian,” Nick Hanauer, a colleague who was an early Amazon investor, told the Seattle Times.
Bezos has particularly played up his social views. In 2012, a former Amazon employee named Jennifer Cast wrote to him, asking him to donate in support of a campaign to defend same-sex marriage rights in a Washington ballot referendum. “Jen,” he replied on behalf of himself and his wife MacKenzie. “This is right for so many reasons. We’re in for $2.5 million.” His foray into the gay rights battle in the state made national headlines, with the Seattle Times calling it “likely the largest political contribution to a gay-marriage campaign in the country.”
But what has not made news is Bezos’ careful activism on behalf of big business and some of the richest Americans. In 2010, a coalition of Washington state public interest groups, teachers and socially minded wealthy Americans like Hanauer and Bill Gates Sr. supported Initiative 1098, which would have established the first-ever income tax in the state. If passed, the initiative would’ve established a tax on adjusted gross income for individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and $400,000 on married couples or domestic partners. By taxing high-income Washingtonians, the initiative would also have allowed for a reduction in property taxes and the expansion of certain business tax credits.
Yet while Nick Hanauer was a strong backer of the initiative, the Amazon tycoon spent $100,000 to defeat it. “There’s almost nothing I could have predicted with more precision than that Jeff would hate the idea,” Hanauer told the Seattle Times. The initiative went on to fail by over 30 percentage points.
Bezos summed up his capitalist philosophy in an interview he conducted nine years earlier. “I think people should carefully reread the first part of the Declaration of Independence,” he told the interviewer. “Because I think sometimes we as a society start to get confused and think that we have a right to happiness, but if you read the Declaration of Independence, it talks about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Nobody has a right to happiness. You should have a right to pursue it, and I think the core of that is liberty.”
Bezos has promoted those capitalist beliefs, by contributing money to the Reason Foundation, which publishes the right-libertarian Reason magazine. “Yikes. One of those ‘dangerous’ libertarians, Jeff Bezos, is buying the Washington Post,” tweeted the 2012 Libertarian Party presidential nominee, Gary Johnson, on Monday. “Free market works in mysterious ways. #tlot #tcot.”
But Jeff Bezos has also discarded his beliefs about “liberty” and the evils of government intervention when it has served his company. It was revealed in a June Government Accountability Office report that Amazon won a $600 million contract to build cloud computing services with the CIA. And Amazon famously pulled Wikileaks’ website from its servers after condemnation from the U.S. government, showing that Bezos’ beliefs in liberty from government only stretched so far.
As a part of his campaign to build his Amazon empire, Bezos has worked to suppress workers and dodge taxes. None of Amazon’s 90,000 American workers are unionized, but it does have 8,000 unionized workers in Germany. Earlier this year, a German TV program alleged that many of Amazon’s workers in that country are bused in from lower-wage countries like Romania, and the workers in German warehouses may have been patrolled by neo-Nazi strongmen “to keep workers in line.”
An article published by the Atlantic earlier this week claimed Bezos is a “strong backer” of an Internet sales tax, but erroneously focused narrowly on the federal Marketplace Fairness Act, the one piece of Internet sales tax legislation Amazon hasn’t fought. When states like South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee (no bastions of leftist lawmakers) sought to collect sales taxes from Amazon.com purchases, Bezos claimed these efforts were “unconstitutional.” Amazon even closed Texas sites after the state demanded it pay sales taxes just like any other business.
Amazon has joined other tech giants in lobbying for liberalizing immigration laws. While many lobbying for these reforms are doing so out of a belief in human rights (like the Dream 9, a group of undocumented immigrants going on hunger strike this week to win asylum rights and protest U.S. immigration policy), Silicon Valley has ulterior motives. The workers in Amazon’s non-union warehouses will eventually grow restless, as fast-food workers and Walmart employees take part in strike waves. An influx of non-unionized workers is the perfect cudgel for Amazon to put down its own labor troubles. At the very least, the tech giants won a victory in the Senate immigration bill: an expansion of H-1B visas that allow tech companies to bring foreign workers to U.S. shores temporarily, undercutting the wages of seasoned U.S. workers and opening up foreign workers to exploitation.
Now Bezos has turned his eye to the latest cause célèbre for the capitalist class: school privatization.
The 2011 financial disclosures for the Bezos Family Foundation reveal a $15,000 donation to New York City-based Education Reform Now, a group founded primarily by finance industry titans that advocates for charter schools. There are also significant contributions directly to various charter schools, school privatization groups in Oregon and Washington State, and hundreds of thousands of dollars logged in support of Teach For America, which in recent years has made advocacy for charter schools and high-stakes testing a core part of its mission.
In light of these facts, the question is how Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post will impact the paper’s reporting. What will happen to the great commentary and analysis by Valerie Strauss, one of the media’s top education privatization critics? Will the editorial board argue in favor of higher taxes for higher incomes? What happens when the man profiting from his company being a major CIA contractor has to oversee of staff of reporters charged with breaking stories on CIA secrets?
In a time of rapid consolidations and layoffs, many are asking how the media can continue to exist in its current form without turning to people like Bezos as benefactors. As the Koch brothers circle the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post reporters ponder their new ultra-capitalist overlord, the answer to this question may be crucial to the future of the independent press.