I was watching the Super Bowl earlier (yeah that’s right, I watch football), and it struck me that despite how cool technology is, we’re still the same bunch of fuckin monkey brain animals that we were tens of thousands of years ago. The Super Bowl is like a national holiday down in the States, a ritual that will run until the ice caps sink Pangea or we all get melanoma and die, whichever happens first.
So while I, along with around 130-150 million other people, was observing this annual tradition, I was thinking about the role of sports in culture, and it turns out we humans have been into that shit for millennia. In the middle part of the Americas, ancient societies played variations of something historians call the “Mesoamerican ballgame,” which is a fucking terrible name for a sport. It sounds like something racist farmers call soccer while supervising their immigrant workers from their air conditioned tractor: “If you boys work hard enough, maybe you can save up to afford a jersey from that Mesoamerican ballgame you people love so much.”
Now apart from the fact that they sometimes beheaded the losing team as a human sacrifice, the ballgame wasn’t that far off from modern football, especially in its importance to society — which was astronomical — and in the amount of money wagered on the outcome. In some cases, evidence points to ballgames played as a proxy for wars and coup attempts which is sick. Imagine having to give over your throne because your boys let you down in the big game, or having to behead your favourite player because he choked when it counted. Talk about a nailbiter.
I was thinking about this for a couple reasons. Number one had to do with the trance-like state I had achieved through a combination of marijuana, inordinate amounts of cheese, and boredom from watching the same Skip the Dishes ad somewhere in the range of 17,000 times. The other was that, every once and awhile, the CBS announcers would throw to a packet called “Next Gen Stats, presented by Amazon Web Services,” and it made me think about how time is a flat circle.
Stick with me, but wealth inequality has been one of humanity's most pressing and difficult challenges since we moved from nomadic tribalism to political tribalism and “civilized” ourselves through farming or whatever it was. This inequality has been the driving force behind almost every ostentatious display of human achievement in history — In Egypt, no slaves, no pyramids. In Greek and Rome, no slaves, no empire. In America, no slaves, no colonial economy, no colonial economy, no revolution, and no revolution, no football. I stole this joke from Louis CK but I don’t really feel bad about that.
My point is that anybody who looks back on history and thinks “wow, we’ve come so far” is a fucking moron. Do you understand how long evolution takes? We’re still the same dumbass people, with the same dumbass problems. The head of Amazon Web Services is a guy named Andy Jassy. It was announced on Tuesday that Jassy will be taking over as CEO of the e-commerce giant in the third quarter of 2021, while its infamous founder, Jeff Bezos, will step back to the position of chair of the board.
Amazon Web Services CEO, Andy Jassy
Bezos is a living, breathing example of wealth inequality, and the reason I’ve brought you all on this mildly confusing introductory journey. In fact, he is the example, holding the title of richest man in the world, with a net worth (according to Forbes) of close to $195 billion today. According to data assessed by inequality.org, the poorest 50% of Americans have less money combined than the richest three, a podium the Amazon founder shares with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
A portion of that 50% makes up the bulk of the over 1 million employees the Washington Post, owned by Bezos, reported Amazon pays as of late October last year. During the pandemic, workers overall lost $3.7 trillion according to the International Labour Organization, and the U.S. alone lost 140,000 jobs, according to the country’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between March and September of 2020, almost 20,000 American Whole Foods Cashiers, who are Amazon employees, and American Amazon warehouse workers were infected by the coronavirus, sparking outrage. The latter are widely considered to be some of the most poorly treated workers in the country, subject to back-breaking quotas, low pay, and little to no protections. I’ll remind you at this point that the pandemic has gotten much worse in the U.S. since that report, which didn’t include frontline delivery drivers.
By contrast, according to an Oxfam report, Billionaires made $3.9 trillion in between March and the end of December, 2020, more than double the cost of president Biden’s stimulus plan which will never pass as proposed. Oxfam also points out that the earnings from the top 10 billionaires is “more than enough to prevent anyone on Earth from falling into poverty because of the virus and to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for all. Finally, according to statistics from the BLS, it would take the average American worker a couple centuries over 4 million years to make as much money as Jeff Bezos if they went that whole time without spending money.
I can sit here and throw numbers at you for another ten paragraphs, but that would be a very fucking boring article, and by this point if you’re not convinced that wealth inequality is a pressing issue, you’re either too bad at math or too bad at critical thinking for it to be worth slowing down for you. At this point, if you’re a white dude, you might be thinking that while these numbers suck, you can’t blame a guy for making money. To this, I respond with a quote from Justin Trudeau’s dad imposing martial law over a G7 country: “fuck you, yes I can.”
There’s no question that Bezos is a talented businessman. Starting in 1994, he took his company from a small-time online book retailer to a trillion dollar business nuke, capable of taking out entire industries if they look at him funny. His innovation has changed the world, and some of those changes are dope, but it’s not as if he did it while delivering vegan candy to disabled veteran puppies.
I already mentioned the hellscapes that are his warehouses, or fulfillment centres, which is what they’re called because modern CEOs are just dying to prove cyberpunk authors right. These storehouses often pop up areas where unemployment is high, providing alternatives to joblessness for people who desperately need them, which would be heartwarming if it weren’t for the fact that every once and a while, those people show up in the news after having dropped unconscious or worse from exhaustion, heat, or, more recently, Covid.
This brutal working environment translates to the company’s corporate culture, which was described in a widely circulated 2015 New York Times report as having “unreasonably high standards,” a company snitching reward policy, no compassion for employees facing hardships including cancer and miscarriages, and a tendency to make everyone that worked there cry like tiny little kids. Apparently, working for Amazon’s corporate division in 2015 was like working for Julie Payette when she still had a job.
A drone shot of Amazon's Ottawa fulfillment centre in the South end
So Bezos fucked the people who ran his business, and he fucked the people who stocked his products, but what about the people who delivered those products? Don’t worry, no worker is left unfucked on his watch. On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission, America’s consumer protection agency, announced that Amazon would have to pay back $62 million it stole from its drivers between 2016 and 2019. They weren’t even clever with this one, they just skimmed tips from gig workers who signed up to deliver packages through Amazon Flex and thought nobody would notice. Like, what the fuck, the company’s worth a trillion bucks and they felt like they needed to resort to the business model of an underground strip club owner who sexually assaults his employees? Amazon operates with the same level of business ethics as the rub and tug next door to our office, and our neighbor told us the owner beats his masseuses, so that’s a pretty fucking low bar.
So anyway, Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, and he got there by running a tight ship, in the same way that Edward Colston ran a tight ship — by kidnapping black people and whipping them. Okay, maybe not quite in the exact same way, but still, pretty bad. You know what though, plenty of people get rich by doing fucked up shit, and aside from the mild $62 million theft, it was all legal. And if you’re a specific breed of particularly cucked white dude, you might be thinking that while yes, he is one person who is worth more than any one person has any right to be ever, it’s not his responsibility to fix all the world’s problems, he lives in the land of the free.
This is a very astute point, strawman business major douche, and one I’ve honestly been struggling with since I began this story. Judging from my Twitter feed and For You page, many of my like minded peers seem to think that the solution to wealth inequality lies with revolution or some sort of Maoist purge of the ruling classes, which I would probably agree with if I didn’t also know that having radical political opinions makes you infinitely more annoying to be around. My real problem with thinking like this is that it’s not realistic.
We all saw how the U.S. government reacted to calls for revolutionary systemic change this past summer, and those demonstrators were just asking for it not to kill them, imagine what the government would do if the protestors were asking to kill them back. And even more moderate solutions, like a wealth tax or, y’know, actually enforcing tax laws seem out of reach for the moment, with a post-Citizens United congress that refuses to work together and a president whose main focus so far has been maintaining a delicately balanced policy portfolio that is both too liberal for Republicans and not liberal enough for Democrats.
A Bristol, UK statue of slave trader Edward Colston is rolled into the harbour by Black Lives Matter protestors in June
I wish that wasn’t the case though, because I just don’t know what to do with a centibillionaire who has no incentive whatsoever to act in the interests of the people from whom he derives all his wealth. I would think the logical move for someone with the most money in the world would be to help solve some of the problems in the world, but I guess not. I should mention at this point that Bezos is in fact involved in philanthropy — In 2017, the New York Times estimated his total philanthropic contributions to be just $100 million, but since then, he’s tacked on a few extra billion. I don’t know though, I guess I just expected more. Frankly I expect more from pretty much every billionaire, because we’re literally dying out here and they literally have the ability to help literally everyone. Space exploration is objectively cool as fuck, but I don’t think it would hurt to divide your focus a little, gang.
I honestly can’t wrap my head around Bezos and others’ devoted reticence when it comes to doing good for this planet. Maybe journalist Jon Ronson got it right in 2011 when he published his book on psychopaths: he said that capitalism rewards psychopathic behaviour handsomely, and that the ratio of psychopath to non-psychopath among CEOs is four times higher than among regular people. So maybe our man is one of those. Or maybe he is simply unable to part with his extreme wealth. Maybe, buried somewhere deep within him, are the same instincts that drove the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Europeans to take slaves and use them to bend the world to their will. Maybe Jeff Bezos, despite all his achievements for better or worse, is still trapped by the same monkey brain logic that lets us justify the suffering of others, abdicate responsibility for the improvement of their conditions, and instead turn on the TV and worship the ballgame rituals.