Jeff Bezos and the billionaire philanthropy crowd are the worst kind of hypocrites

Jeff Bezos is no stranger to hurried grand announcements. Remember last year when the e-commerce tycoon tried desperately to counter the backlash over his 11-minute trip to the edge of space in one of his Blue Origin rockets?

The expedition was sandwiched by news of hundreds of millions of dollars in gifts, including a $US200 million ($295 million) donation to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

It’s easy to be sceptical about the timing of Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy announcements.Credit:AP

This time the Amazon founder has gone one better, unveiling plans, in an “exclusive interview” with CNN, to “give away” the majority of his $US124 billion fortune just hours before the online shopping behemoth announced it would be laying off 10,000 workers.

If Bezos was hoping his sudden generosity would help to deflect some of the attention from the largest single round of lay-offs in the company’s near 30-year history, then on the face of it, it worked. Within hours, this supposed act of extraordinary magnanimity was beamed around the world – across the internet, prime-time television and in all the top newspapers.

Still, it seems unlikely that many people will take it at face value. The public aren’t fools. There is more than a whiff of reputation-washing in all this, from a tycoon who founded a business often mired in controversy.

Philanthropy from leading businesspeople in its purest form is obviously to be applauded, and rich entrepreneurs have done a huge amount of good. But in the case of some of the big tech crowd, it too often leaves the impression that good causes are used as a distraction technique.

In July, Bill Gates announced on Twitter that he was “giving away virtually all” of his $US113 billion fortune.

But sceptics pointed out that he had made similar announcements in 2008, 2010 and 2018 – so why the need for a fourth proclamation?

Could it be, after months of bad press about his close relationship with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and the role it played in his divorce from wife of 27 years, Melinda, that one of the richest people on the planet was trying to change the narrative?

The downfall of cryptocurrency exchange FTX and its 30-year-old founder Sam Bankman-Fried has shone an unfavourable spotlight on a growing corner of philanthropy called effective altruism (EA), a vague philosophy that has become super trendy in Silicon Valley and among socially conscious Millennials and Generation Z.

Bill Gates is another to pledge to give away his fortune. Credit:AP

Popularised by William MacAskill, the Scottish philosopher and Oxford University professor, it is a sort of giving community that essentially encourages its acolytes to amass as much wealth as possible, then donate it in a way that has the greatest impact.

Bankman-Fried was one of EA’s most evangelical followers. Yet, as claims emerge that as much as $US2 billion of client funds are missing at FTX after it collapsed into bankruptcy, it seems that in his desperation to embrace the new movement, crypto’s wonderkid skipped the money-making part entirely.

The hypocrisy of some of America’s tech founders is nothing new, of course, but Bezos has an unfortunate habit of appearing laughably tone deaf, no more so than during his appearance as the star guest at Cop26 in Glasgow last year.

There, delegates were treated to the absurd spectacle of a man whose empire has had a profoundly negative effect on the environment proselytising that “we must all stand together to protect our world.”

The hypocrisy of some of America’s tech founders is nothing new, of course, but Bezos has an unfortunate habit of appearing laughably tone deaf.

Presumably the tycoon thought that because his Earth Fund had unveiled a $US2 billion donation for natural habit restoration in Africa, it gave him the right to lecture on the perils of climate change. A similar announcement was made at Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Yet, no amount of greenwashing can turn him into Greta Thunberg. People would be far more inclined to listen if Amazon had made great strides in reducing its impact on the planet’s resources, yet the company’s delivery vans, trucks and planes have a higher carbon footprint than Switzerland and Luxembourg combined.

Bezos might be taken more seriously this time around if his grand giveaway wasn’t so vague, yet it was painfully short on detail, reinforcing the impression that it was rushed out in an attempt to temper any backlash over its planned job cuts.

Asked directly by CNN whether he intended to donate the majority of his wealth within his lifetime, Bezos replied: “Yeah, I do.” Similarly, when it comes to where his many billions will be directed, we are told it will be spent fighting climate change and “supporting people who can unify humanity in the face of deep social and political divisions”, which sounds like some nefarious plan for total world domination, not just supremacy of the high street.

There will be those, who, not unfairly, question whether it is mean-spirited to be criticising someone who has just pledged to give the equivalent of the GDP of Hungary away to charity.

But equally this is a company that is constantly dogged by accusations of low wages and poor working conditions. One of its UK packing depots was recently likened to “a Chinese sweatshop” and, a Westminster select committee repeatedly challenged a senior Amazon executive over the company’s draconian approach to workers’ rights.

Genuine philanthropy is a great thing, but for Bezos it should start closer to home.

Telegraph, London

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