Last year I, along with roughly 104,000 other people all seemingly simultaneously discovered a new Twitter account that asked a very simple question: Has Jeff Bezos Decided to End World Hunger Today?
The premise of the account centers around 2 connected concepts: 1. according to the IFPRI (Internation Food Policy Research Institute), it would cost $11 Billion to end world hunger per year and 2. Jeff Bezos is currently worth $184 Billion (give or take a couple million on any given day based on how Amazon stock is doing).
In short: Jeff Bezos could end world hunger for the next 15 years and still be worth roughly $14 Billion, or if you prefer, still be the 76th richest person alive.
Arguments about the veracity of these claims or Bezos’ liquidity at any given point in time aside, it is a staggering quantification of the kind of change truly incomprehensible wealth could potentially be capable of.
The human mind has difficulty conceptualizing large numbers. Scientists and sociologists generally hold that the largest number a human brain can realistically comprehend in meaningful terms is around 100,000, with estimates ranging as low as a couple hundred, all the way up to perhaps one million. That leaves us woefully unequipped to deal with quantities in the billions, let alone hundreds of billions. So perhaps an analogy I saw recently making the rounds on social media will help:
If you made $5,000 a day, every single day (weekends, holidays included…) from the day Christopher Colombus sailed from Spain, up to today, you still wouldn’t be a Billionaire.
That is a bit of a brain melter. 5 grand a day, every day for 527 years and you’re still not a Billionaire. For comparison’s sake, you’d need to have made ~$956,564, every day for those 527 years to reach Jeff Bezos level wealth; close to a million dollars a day.
Discussing the ethical implications of Billionaires is a daunting prospect. It’s exceedingly difficult to fit ultra-wealth into any objective moral framework. Instead, we collectively make silent agreements to create quasi-plausible excuses for why we’re not all outraged and disgusted by their unfathomable excess.
We excuse it by asking ourselves and others to “Look at all the good they’re doing with their money”, while tacitly implying we would, of course, do the same or more in their position. Rarely are the results of their would-be philanthropy scrutinized, and even more rarely are they seen in scale to the well from which they draw upon.
If you had the power to end world hunger for even 1 year, and you didn’t, is there any way to view that as anything less than inexcusably reprehensible?
Dreams are incredible and often inspiring things. What they aren’t, however, are plans. We rarely, if ever, consider the potential ramifications of achieving a dream, and The American Dream is no exception. Runaway capitalism is the inevitable result of a nation built on the idea that personal wealth equates to a person’s inherent value, and that any means of achieving that wealth are acceptable; indeed the seed-capital that served as the initial investment for the worlds largest economy was generated by slave labor and later exploitation of the working class.
The mechanisms intended to keep free-market capitalism from entering this runaway phase do not work when so much wealth is concentrated into so few people. Our collective societal buying power is rendered moot because people like Bezos no longer need our money to succeed. They have all the money they, and their families will ever need and are now simply keeping score.
In June of 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet announced “The Giving Pledge”, a philanthropic organization aimed at recruiting the mega-rich to commit to donating the majority of their wealth to philanthropy before or upon their death. As of this writing, they have over 200 signees and pledges totaling more than 500 Billion Dollars. Interestingly, over a decade after its formation Bill Gates’s net worth remains $98 Billion, while Buffett is still worth $67.5 Billion.
This begs the question: What exactly are they waiting for?
Hungry people are dying of starvation today, and have been for the decade since the foundations’ formation. Paradoxically, by allowing the hoarding of wealth by so few people in a way that causes so much death and pain, we are lowering our capacity for future world wealth generation through the loss of unquantifiable amounts of human intellectual capital and potential innovation.
Anthropologists have long speculated that one of the primary reasons human beings were able to evolve such advanced brains was due to our technology (fire & tools) making it possible to intake large amounts of calories quickly through dense cooked meals, leaving our mind time to wander to things beyond simply finding our next meal. By ending world hunger today, they could free hundreds of millions of people worldwide from those same atavistic strictures.
Jeff Bezos or one of his contemporaries could make that choice today. Instead, he recently donated $98.5 million to his personal foundation, The Bezos Day-One Foundation, to address homelessness. This amount represents roughly .05% of his net worth.
Interestingly, Amazon not only paid $0 in taxes last year, they actually will be receiving a refund of roughly $129 Million, which means even after his recent donation, he comes out ahead $30.5 Million.
This is how philanthropy works. It’s a shell game; a misdirection meant to make us look one way while the trick is performed in the other direction, and we keep falling for it. From Rockefeller to Bezos, this lie persists and for centuries people have suffered at the hands of this lie.