The NY Times profile quotes me saying “We don’t really have an Amazon problem. What we have is a deep, societal problem with an unacceptable imbalance of power and wealth.” But the URL contained the string “amazon-critic-tim-bray” and the HTML <title> says “Tim Bray Is Not Done With Amazon”. I feel like I’m being pigeonholed and I don’t like it.

I am totally not some sort of anti-Amazon obsessive. And I am done with Amazon; even though I’m doubtless on a dozen internal enemies lists, I have no real interest in giving the company, specifically, a hard time. I’m mad at the structure of 21st-century capitalism; the fabric of society is in danger of breaking. I’m enjoying the privilege of having an audience for my criticism and can’t see any reason to limit it to one corporation. Because the problem is so big that any of them, even Amazon, is rounding error.

There’s also the fact that I admire many things about Amazon:

  1. It’s by far the best-managed place I ever worked, including the places where I was the CEO.

  2. The people I worked with in AWS were, on average, decent, honest, and smart.

  3. The climate pledge is admirable. (Haven’t seen much action recently, and I guess Covid is a not-terrible excuse, but come on, the climate emergency’s not going away.)

  4. The company is working hard on Diversity & Inclusion. The results are meh (like all over the tech biz) but the energy and funding are there.

  5. Amazon.com has improved the world by showing what well-done online shopping is like. The world likes it. It remains to be seen what the world is like when there are a lot more parties offering really great online shopping.

  6. AWS has improved the world of IT by showing what well-done cloud computing is like. The IT world likes it. Public-cloud competition is stiffening, but AWS is a really good choice for almost anyone’s needs. Its lead over the competition is well-earned. I’m doing a bit of consulting here and there and have found myself recommending AWS more than once already.

Except for that thing · The firing-whistleblowers thing I mean. They shouldn’t have done that and there’s no excuse. I still think quitting was the only thing to do. But I feel no need (nor, apparently, does Amazon) to relitigate that issue.

Well, and one other thing: Amazon’s absurd and cruel down-to-the-last-ditch-and-beyond resistance to unionization. There’s no way that’s reasonable. I’ve gotten to know some fine, inspiring people working that front and I’ll support them going forward, any way I can.

US family wealth distribution

The rest of the things · There’s lots more to complain about but little of it is specific to Amazon, it’s all about 21st-century-capitalism, like so:

  1. Warehouse workers’ lives are often shitty. In fact, life for the US working class these days is shitty, and it’s not by accident, it’s by design. It was called the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal consensus, and it was wrapped up with lots of high-flying rhetoric about this freedom and that dynamism and those flexibilities, but you don’t have to be that cynical to see it as good old-fashioned class war. It’s obvious who’s winning.

  2. Big Tech sells technology to loathsome customers, for example carbon-vomiting oil extractors and overempowered child-caging immigration officials. Of course, possibly the bug is that these sorts of organizations are allowed to have oceans of money. Fix that and remove the temptation!

  3. Big Tech emits a whole lot of carbon into the atmosphere and facilitates the emission of much, much more. Humanity can’t afford this and it has to stop.

  4. Big Business in general and Big Tech in particular is waaaay too powerful; the millions poured into lobbying have fabulous ROI.

Break ’em Up · I’m strongly convinced that the structure of Big Business in general and Big Tech in particular is too concentrated in ways that are damaging along multiple axes. Check out Anti-Monopoly Thinking and Large Companies Considered Harmful; this is not a new opinion.

Let’s start with Google. It feels the most urgent because the Google/Facebook ad cartel is rapidly destroying publishing business models that have been essential to civilized human dicourse.

Next I’d go after Microsoft who are still, all these decades later, using the cash and incumbency advantages of their steely grip on the business desktop and email server to invade other business sectors. Which is to say, Slack has a gripe. This one is particularly maddening to me because Microsoft has been doing this shit since I was carving code on stone tablets.

By the time you’d launched those campaigns I suspect Amazon would wake up, smell the coffee, and spin out AWS already. Then we’ll see what the retail business is really like given the violent contrast between the galactic revenue growth and the negligible profit margin.

Media Friction · I’ve had a certain amount of friction with the journalists who found me interesting after my May 1st exit from Amazon. Because there was this great, simple, story that they’d like to have told: Plucky engineer leads geek revolt against Jeff Bezos, Richest Man In the World.

That struggle story — Man against company, or Man against Billionaire — is a crowd-pleaser. The actual struggle that interests me is against the current horrifying imbalance in global power and wealth, which is kind of abstract, doesn’t have a chiseled cartoon-villain billionaire in the cast, and is frighteningly large in scale.

Seriously; basically every reporter I’ve talked to has tried to get me to say awful things about Amazon and in particular about Jeff Bezos. But at my last job they taught me to think big and, with all his billions, Jeff is rounding error in the big picture. He’s not the problem; the legal/regulatory power structures that enable him and his peers is.

Amazon is a perfectly OK company, to the extent that planetary-scale sprawling corporate behemoths can be perfectly OK in 2020. Which is to say, not OK at all.

But once again, no one company is the problem. The problem’s the entirely-fixed great global card game illustrated by that graph, above. The problem’s the fact that in one of the world’s wealthiest economies, we have ever-growing homeless camps where they’re dying of opioids faster than Covid. (That’s maybe not the worst part, but it’s the one I see with my own eyes.)

We can do way better as a society than the greed-fueled planet-destroying worker-crushing hamster-wheel we’re spinning right now.

That’s why I’m making noise.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: sebastian (Jul 27 2020, at 23:23)

thanks tim for that article. i think you pinned down the problem very well. keep on the good work.

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From: Duncan Hull (Jul 28 2020, at 03:13)

Tim, you're saying what everyone* else is thinking. Thanks for standing up for what you believe in.

* well maybe not EVERYONE but certainly lots of people...

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From: b4ke (Jul 28 2020, at 03:49)

Jeff is just biding his time, as he is the wealthiest man, and therefore in line to be the first for physical relief from form (little does he know what's waiting in the light), also meaning he will fight unionization with the understanding that he will be the first to replace all workers with robots.

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From: JD (Jul 28 2020, at 05:22)

Thanks for being prepared to make a stand, and please keep making as much noise as possible!

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From: Michael Graf (Jul 28 2020, at 11:09)

The source for the graph is here: https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/reports/51846-familywealth.pdf

I will say that wealth is a super tricky thing to understand and think about across generations.

For example how much wealth accumulation has occurred for each years' 20-29yr old decade? I think we'd see net wealth plummet as post secondary (along with the debt) became the standard path to a "good job".

Similarly I would expect wealth to accumulate, in a compounding manner, as baby boomers approached retirement. It should similarly dissipate, in a compounding manner, as they spend retirement monies and eventually pass on.

Because poorer families have more children their wealth has a fan out effect so they will constantly have a dilutive effect on their intergenerational wealth. Whereas richer families have fewer than replacement children resulting in a concentrating effect. Neither of those choices (nor their effects) should be evaluated as "moral" because they are the result of another moral good-- Free choice.

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From: Juhani (Jul 28 2020, at 14:53)

If the person is inherently free (to work 2 days a week), including being free on what he thinks, then most of the big corporation problems do not matter.

Being free on the questions, topics a person thinks about, that requires less news entertainment and less echo chambers. The problems you describe in your post are currently popular.

The larger problem you describe is poor persons debt and thought pattern induced slavery (including a relatively compulsory payment method a credit card), the result of the person having mostly animal like thought patterns that are abused to sell/manipulate.

Mr. Gates might have some problems, but he is trying to improve education and his contributions seem bold and valuable.

Instead of improving warehouse workers conditions, what would you make them read and write an essay on if you could make them, compulsory, 2h / week? Which questions would actually help them over time, possibly more than unions?

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From: Douglas (Jul 28 2020, at 14:58)

I think there is wide agreement across many segments that corporations ate too big, that income disparity is a problem, that wealth concentration is an even bigger problem, and that our economic structure in the US is broken in multiple ways. This hold true for much of Europe, by the way.

But here is the weird part. The upper ten percent, and in particular, the upper one percent, have managed to convince the lower fifty percent that they deserve everything that they have.

Ronald Reagan was a genius and selling supply side, and it has never gone away.

The second 'COVID Relief' bill that the US Senate just proposed includes language to allow banks to reduce cash reserves, basically, go back to 2005/2006 all over again. Because the banks didn't harvest enough cash last time.

Lobbying, and recent court cases that support it, has completely distorted representation in this country. Billions of dollars are being given, granted, to Pharmaceutical companies to develop a COVID vaccine that they have come right out and said they will not accept price controls on. After taking public money.

It is all insane, and it needs to be fixed. I wish I knew how to fix it, but I will endorse your base premise here. Start breaking up companies. And not just tech. The blending of civilian and military manufacturing has completely distorted that market as well. Break up Boeing, for starters. And break up all the huge 'Health' companies. Meridian has a stranglehold on healthcare where I live. Break them up.

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From: Susan Carter (Jul 29 2020, at 17:26)

You show the problem, but what’s the solution in a so-called democracy where money rules politics. Have you considered using consumer power to change the system by inviting Amazon shareholders and customers to calli on Amazon to consent to the formation of a union for Amazon workers. This may seem like a “dream on” suggestion, but I volunteer for and support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) who, when I met them in 2004, worked in even more brutal conditions than those faced by Amazon workers in the fields. Walmart was persuaded to join this program in which tens of thousands of farmworkers are protected by the Fair Food Program (FFP). An independent monitoring group, the Fair Food Standards Council, ensures workers’ complaints are promptly investigated and resolved.

The farmworkers have achieved this goal and continue to grow and attract consumer allies through their incredibly hard work, commitment, and creativity. In most instances, following the boycott of Taco Bell, companies joined the FFP sometimes after discussions with the CIW leadership, at other times after many protests. Petitions and protests with students, other organizations, and consumers have helped as well.

As you say, Amazon provides many valuable services. Many Amazon customers have difficulty obtaining basic necessities without purchasing them from Amazon. My elderly husband and I try to shop locally as much as possible. We would be delighted to call on Amazon to protect and pay workers who make our purchases possible. Amazon must have millions of customers who would appreciate the opportunity to be part of this urgently-needed change. I would be delighted to help reach out in my community to garner support for this effort.

Susan Carter

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From: Raymond Lutz (Jul 30 2020, at 17:00)

I'm working on a Canadian wealth disparity graph: it's a work in progress you can see (and comment) in this mastodon thread

https://mamot.fr/@lutzray/104592544661569073

I'm trying to make it as much as elegant and as readable possible but still exhaustive.

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From: Kylie (Aug 03 2020, at 04:36)

It's great to see your thoughtful take on the toxicity of neoliberalism today. I agree that Amazon and Bezos are much more symptom than problem ... albeit occasionally very irritating symptoms!

Given the direction you seem to be interested in, I'd like to suggest a couple of rabbit-holes to explore:

Game B

Commons

And if you're interested in wicked problems in general (of which climate change and pandemics are two, which are themselves probably wickedly interwoven), then please don't hesitate to reach out to me directly via my website www.praxorium.org

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