Jeff Bezos Swallowed Our Economy Whole

The Amazon founder shrewdly steps down at the peak of his company’s power

Photo illustration. Image source: Tyler Comrie/malerapaso/Getty Images

Jeff Bezos, the archetypal daredevil capitalist, spent 27 years charging headlong into industry after industry, seemingly indifferent to the bloodletting and destruction in his wake. Now, at 57, as he plans to step down as CEO this summer, transitioning to the role of executive chairman, he leaves the helm of Amazon like a shrewd championship boxer — with his shaved pate among the most identifiable individuals on the planet, very possibly at the peak of his and his company’s powers, and down possibly the only way to go — on top.

Amid social, economic, and political chaos, regulators and antitrust lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic are circling Big Tech, with the aim of bringing Facebook, Google, and Apple to heel. But Amazon is a special target of some of the neo-antitrust movement’s best minds, a proving ground that laggard monopoly law can be modernized to tame today’s biggest companies. And if it confronts a future of being fractured into pieces, Bezos’ original dream — an “everything store” that stocked literally anything anyone might desire — would be over. Not that Bezos would suffer financially: Even if Amazon is broken up, Bezos would still probably be the largest shareholder of every piece of it. Still, when you are a builder, it hurts when your castle is divided into condos.

The question I have always pondered is what kind of insatiable impulse would drive anyone to create something like what Amazon has become?

In 1994, Bezos launched Amazon as a simple, pioneering online seller of books. Today, with a fortune of about $190 billion, he is the world’s second-richest man, despite his ex-wife MacKenzie receiving $38 billion of the family assets in their 2019 divorce. Perhaps no one except Bezos himself could see what could be next after books — dominance in surveillance technologies like Alexa and Ring, cloud computing, every kind of retail, groceries, health, entertainment, and more.

That was all before Covid-19. Since then, Amazon has grown from a mere behemoth onto a new level requiring an entirely different vocabulary. With much of the country still in lockup, Amazon packages end up on the front porch of an unnerving percentage of American homes several times a week. In earnings reported at the same time as Bezos’ shift to executive chairman, Amazon announced a 40% year-on-year surge in fourth-quarter sales, to $125 billion, the first time quarterly company revenue has surpassed $100 billion. Amazon expects the current quarter to exceed $100 billion, too. That is the scale of ExxonMobil of yore. And ExxonMobil used to operate as a virtual country to itself.

The question I have always pondered is what kind of insatiable impulse would drive anyone to create something like what Amazon has become? Is it not sufficient to build and control a single industry and be a multibillionaire? Who decides they are going to control two industries? What about three?

Why sprint across one industry boundary after another, watch as blood flows on Main Street, the middle class is hollowed out, and workers teem into cavernous warehouses to work like ants and be managed by algorithms?

Even Elon Musk, the world’s richest person and among our most visionary entrepreneurs, is not attempting to own one swath after another of the economy. With Musk, it’s easy to see that his ambition is on a higher plain — there’s something nobly aspirational about making mobility electric, getting humans to Mars, and beating artificial intelligence.

In Bezos’ case, it’s probably cool to get people stuff in a day. But why sprint across one industry boundary after another, watch as blood flows on Main Street, the middle class is hollowed out, and workers teem into cavernous warehouses to work like ants and be managed by algorithms? In a settlement just today, Amazon agreed to pay its delivery drivers $61.7 million to make up for tips that the company had pocketed over two and a half years. The optics are of a person with a gargantuan notion of winning, and one prepared to do so at almost any cost.

Amazon has made us pose a question: Do we really want a single store to be in a very real sense the whole economy, the Bezos Economy? We may already have answered during the pandemic by heedlessly hitting the Amazon button more often than not when we want something. Now, Amazon and the rest of Big Tech are muscling up for the fight of their lives. As for Bezos himself, right at the point at which Amazon and the rest of Big Tech become the bad guys, he is wisely going out as an éminence grise.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.