Why Jeff Bezos Can’t (And Shouldn’t) Fix Everything

Jeff Bezos does not have $150 billion (now $108 billion, after his divorce). I don’t care what you’ve read. He does not have that much money.

What Jeff Bezos has is a lot of Amazon stock. I don’t know how much exactly. Let’s pretend he has 1 billion shares of Amazon stock, and each one is worth $108. What happens if the stock price drops? If it drops by half tomorrow, he will, all of a sudden, “have” “only” $54 billion dollars. At least, that’s what all the articles will say.

Speaking of sensationalist articles, perhaps you’ve seen them retweeted with a comment along the lines of, “Jeff Bezos could feed the hungry AND fix Flint, Michigan’s water pipes” or “Jeff Bezos could house all the homeless” or “Jeff Bezos could pay off all the student debt in America with those billions” or whatever. They will choose a cause, or several, that add up to 150 billion dollars, because that’s how much he “had” before the divorce, when all these headlines were coming out.

But how would Bezos actually do that? In order to pay for any of these very expensive causes, he would need to sell stock first. But what happens when someone starts selling off large amounts of stock? The price drops. He could sell off some shares at $108 each, but eventually he’d have to sell at $107, or $100, or $50, or just $20. How much money would he make by the end? Lots, of course, but not $108 billion.

If you think about it, if he had a giant stack of $100 bills equaling the amount of $108 bn, why wouldn’t he put $100 billion into space flight and live on the remaining $8 billion? Because he doesn’t actually have that much money, he instead sells off a billion dollars worth of stock every year and puts it into space flight.

If you have a job that pays even $100k, but live in a city with absurd rent and are trying desperately to pay off your student loans, a billion dollars may sound like a lot of money. That’s especially true if you have a family.

But when you contemplate the sheer size of the problems people want to make billionaires pay for, you start to see that those problems are not billion-dollar problems. They are multi-trillion-dollar problems. This is often true even for problems that look less expensive, when you consider that they will cost money every year, not just one year.

Well, all right, not all of them are like that. Some problems, like the unsafe water pipes in Flint, are in fact multi-million-dollar problems that could potentially be addressed by billionaires. But it’s not that easy. You don’t just fork over a hundred million dollars and wait for things to get better. Mark Zuckerberg tried it once. He gave $100 million to the Newark, NJ school system. There’s an excellent book about that effort called The Prize, and if you read it, you will understand why a) Cory Booker (who was mayor of Newark at the time) should not be President, and b) you don’t always get what you pay for with philanthropy.

The problem with philanthropy, you see, is that you have to donate in exactly the right way to exactly the right people and exactly the right cause, or else you might as well be lighting your money on fire. And anyway, if we’re going to expect billionaires to spend all their time solving expensive social problems, we might as well start electing them to public office.

Oh, wait. Do we actually want billionaires to be in charge of everything? Or do we, maybe, not?

Here’s a thought: how about, instead of expecting billionaires to run a second, more severely under-funded Federal Government in their spare time, why don’t we raise their taxes and elect Elizabeth Warren and more like her?


A Letter to David Brooks

In this post I have copied and pasted an email I sent to David Brooks, with light editing, so that this will read better as a blog post.

I don’t know if I really kept this message as brief as possible, but I did try. I hope Brooks read it, but he hasn’t replied. Since this is a central idea of mine and there is a lot more to say on the topic, I may expand on it in future blog posts.

Hi Mr. Brooks,

I’m a subscriber to the New York Times, a liberal atheist who tends to disagree with most of your articles. However, I wholeheartedly approve of your Weave initiative. It was my theories on the causes of social isolation and tribal extremism that led me to find the speech you gave on March 1 at the Knight Media Forum, and hence to your email address. I do hope I’m not bothering you by sending this email from out of the blue, and that I correctly interpreted your giving your email address out in public as a solicitation of ideas from unexpected places.
Since you don’t know me, I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible: social isolation has been amplified in the past few decades not just by cultural factors like individualism, but by the increasing dominance of cars, suburban development patterns, and ever-better telecommunications technologies. In order to fix the problem of social isolation, you have to get people outdoors, and to get them outdoors, you have to get them within walking distance of the places they need to go.

I’ll give you an example of how cars drive us apart. I am a mother of two young kids. When we moved into our house, there was a family living right next door with two young kids of almost exactly the same ages and genders as mine. They liked playing together, but they could rarely find the time to do so. I stay home with the kids, and we were at home a lot at that time, but in the neighbors’ family, both parents worked. The kids were in daycare all day every day, except on the weekends, when they were almost always attending a birthday party or other event with people they knew who lived in other neighborhoods. They spent so much time rushing from one location to the next that they rarely had any time to form local relationships.

There are so many more examples I could use, and I’m sure you can think of many more from your own life. We are constantly at least a few miles away from most of the parts of our lives, a state which I call “dis-integration.” When people live in actual tribes, or in small agricultural settlements, all the parts of their lives are contained within a small area. You live with your family, who are also your co-workers and teachers. In that situation, you can hardly fail to develop intimate relationships with other people. This would be a state of integration.

But in a modern economy, people live in a home-box with home-people, work in a work-box with work people, go to the school-box with school people, shop at a big box store alongside other shoppers, etc., and in between they are in cars, where there are often no people at all, and you can’t casually run into a neighbor without ending up in court.

This socio… econo… geographical? state is very convenient for institutions that mass-produce standardized products and discourage their employees from dating one another, but feels deeply counter-intuitive and dystopian to a species that has been accustomed by millennia of evolution to living in smallish, intimate groups. In my view, this sense of dystopia drives a wide range of movements, including minimalist footwear, paleo dieting, anti-vaccination activism, homeschooling, natural childbirth, DIYing of all kinds, naturopathic medicine, reconstructed pagan faiths, and nationalism.

Cultural approaches like yours are critical to solving our social isolation problem, and I would hate for these efforts to be undermined by lack of attention to these other factors. Thank you for your time.


The Plan

There’s nothing like personal discomfort to motivate a person. As I sit in my house, unable to leave it without inhaling a face-full of wildfire smoke, I finally feel angry enough to do something about climate change.

I should have done this earlier, naturally, but being only 32, I was a child when the relevant policy changes should have been made in order to avoid the exceptionally nasty wildfire situation that has made the air smell like car exhaust for the past few days, trapping me and my young children in an increasingly stuffy house. I am also too young to have personally contributed much to the anticipated demise of Miami, Shanghai, Bangladesh, St. Petersburg, New Orleans, Galveston, Norfolk, New York City, Venice, Boston, or any number of other places that will be flooding or entirely deserted by 2100 at our current rate of greenhouse gas emissions.

Whilst these coastal cities lose territory or disappear altogether, many will also be hit by terrible hurricanes the likes of which we have never seen. People will flee inland, but places inland will be hot, smoky, pestilential and, of course, drought-stricken. We will be fighting storms of fire, wind, and water while our crops dry out in the fields and our parched cattle fall to the dust.

It’s too late for me to avoid climate change, and it’s far too late for my kids. They will never live in the cool, green world that I remember from the 80s, when I was their age. This hot, gray world is their inheritance. They are obliged to suffer its horrors, just as the people of the Middle Ages were obliged to endure the plague. It is their own grandparents, and most especially their great-grandparents, who have done this to them. Unlike medieval people, who spread the plague without knowing anything about disease transmission, my children’s American ancestors burned tons upon tons of fossil fuels having already been warned about what would happen. They – we – are still doing it.

We have passed 410 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (far above the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm). In order to achieve the goal of less than 3.6º Fahrenheit of warming set by the Paris climate agreement of 2015, we would need to not only end our greenhouse gas emissions within a few short decades, but then go on to actually suck carbon out of the air for a few decades. We do not have the technology to do this on a grand scale. With current technology, we are still going to face at least 3.6º F of warming over pre-industrial levels, even if we eventually zero out our carbon emissions as planned.

In the Pliocene Epoch, millions of years ago, the world was about 3.6º F warmer than the world just prior to the industrial revolution. The oceans at that time were 100 feet higher. Yes, you read that right. ONE. HUNDRED. FEET. There are literally hundreds of millions of people currently living in places that will be under the ocean in… how long? Scientists aren’t sure, but they forecast 2-4 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. That’s 82 years from now. But if the ice in Greenland or the West Antarctic melts more quickly than expected, the sea could rise ten or twenty feet in horrifyingly short order. Goodbye, Shanghai!

We are destroying some of the most beautiful places in the world, places that provide us hope, joy, happiness, and material resources. Already, the coral reefs of the world are on course to die off – fantastically beautiful reefs that shelter 25% of species in the oceans, including literal tons of delicious fish that humans like to eat. The rainforests, brimming with the most amazingly beautiful flowers and birds, are being cut down very rapidly. Why are we cutting them down? One of the reasons is so that we can plant more palm trees in order to make palm oil, which I have found recently in the ingredients list of ice cream sandwiches. Imagine that. We are turning the rainforests – the lungs of the earth – into ice cream sandwiches and eating them.

Ocean acidification is supposed to increase five-fold by 2100, which will more or less eradicate oysters, clams, lobsters, shrimp, crabs, and anything else with a shell. Sorry, future grandchildren. No oysters on the half shell for you. No shrimp tempura. No crab cakes. Those creatures are extinct. We melted them.

Religious sites will be destroyed too. Mecca will be so hot that Muslims will not be able to survive the Hajj. The great Ganges river, sacred to millions of Hindus, will dry to a trickle once the Himalayan glaciers that feed it melt away – and they are already well on their way. They may not have much time to worry about it, however, as they will be busy scrambling to find drinking water.

And why are we taking beauty, flavor, coolness, sweetness out of the world? It isn’t because we are stupid. We are doing it so we can live. We cannot all eat without modern agriculture, and modern agriculture produces a good 9% of our greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA[1]. Not all of us enjoy oysters or plan to visit Venice, but all of us need to eat.

Of course, if that were the only problem, we would be in reasonable shape. But electricity generation produces 28% of our greenhouse gas emissions. We use electricity to cook; heat, cool, and light up our homes and offices; and clean and dry our clothes. Electricity powers the screens that are our window onto worlds of entertainment, education, socializing, job searches, online shopping, personal banking, news, and paperwork of all kinds. Electricity powers the factories that make our chairs, beds, toys, books, shoes, and so on. Most people’s jobs would be impossible or much harder without electrical power. Most people will never scuba dive near a coral reef, but most people do need to work and do laundry.

If that were the only problem, we could solve it, although it would be very expensive to do so. We could install solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear power stations to power all that activity. But then there is transportation, which accounts for another 28% of our emissions, and that problem is extremely hard to solve. People can’t go to their workplaces without cars, but even more than that, we can’t ship goods around the world, or even around the country, or even to the next town over, without trucks or trains or ships that all burn fossil fuels. Solving our transportation problem would mean re-architecting our infrastructure on a grand scale. That is to say, a large number of our houses and businesses and roads are all in the wrong places, and must be moved.

Solving all these problems at once is an undertaking of Titanic proportions, and we have about as much faith in our ability to solve them as we do, using our powers of hindsight, in the ability of the Titanic to steer around the iceberg. Thinking this way can make you feel depressed or hopeless. No one can fight climate change alone. No one can reverse the damage that has already been done. Why take even simple steps? What’s the point?

But humans have done amazing things before, even things that required personal sacrifice. The Allies coordinated a huge effort to defeat the Axis powers in WWII, for example. One of the most depressing things about climate change is that even though we have known about this problem for a long time, there has been no sufficiently large, coordinated effort to fight it. Instead of addressing climate change in a serious fashion, we have been debating such topics as whether or not it’s okay to punch a Nazi, who is allowed to use the women’s bathroom, and whether we should help terrified families who have fled a war zone.

(That last one is going to come up again. If you think conflict in Syria and Libya sent a lot of people fleeing to other countries, just wait until all 163 million Bangladeshis flee their flooded country.)

Why, with all our capabilities, haven’t we done better at addressing climate change? Firstly, because there has been a disinformation campaign organized by the oil industry and associated governments (the U.S., Russia) to obscure the issue. Secondly, because environmentalists have not organized to address climate change.

Perhaps environmentalists who have been fighting climate change far longer than I have will find this offensive, but it has to be said: you haven’t done nearly enough, and some of the things you’ve done (looking at you, anti-nuclear activists) have been counter-productive. Let’s take a look at some of the very few organizations that are even trying.

When I look at An Inconvenient Truth, I see Al Gore working furiously to educate the public about the specifics of climate change – evidence for it, likely consequences, that sort of thing. The documentary shows that before he began educating the public, he spent many years trying to convince elected officials that they should act. At no point did he come up with a plan to address climate change and push it the hell through. He relied on other people to act, and he is still relying on other people to act, only he’s relying now on the public rather than Senators.

In Seattle there is an organization called 350.org that is dedicated to getting the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million. Its main strategy is to try and stop fossil fuel infrastructure projects from being completed, via protest and divestiture. The organization was founded by environmentalist Bill McKibben, who believes that non-violent resistance is the key to fighting climate change. How will that work? By goading people into action. By showing the seriousness of the problem and the commitment of activists to fighting against it. In a speech he gave to The New School, a university in NYC, McKibben called actual climate change legislation, “the mopping-up phase.” He, too, is leaving climate change action to… someone else.

Earth Guardians, a youth organization, takes on a broad range of environmental issues, including climate change. One of their most notable efforts is a lawsuit called Juliana v. U.S. They sued the federal government, that is, for taking actions that negatively impacted the ability of young people to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness throughout the course of their lives. This particular suit is ongoing, and society would be well advised to include in our legal framework a way to protect the rights of future generations. However, even if this suit makes headway, the extent to which it changes the behavior of the federal government will be limited in the absence of a large, sustained movement to change minds and policies.

Then there is the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. This organization advocates for a carbon tax with profits distributed equitably to the people, and they also planted a seed of hope in the U.S. House of Representatives by recruiting congresspeople to begin a Climate Solutions Caucus. It now has 86 members, half Republican, half Democratic. While this is some excellent work, none of it goes far enough.

Outside of these, I am seeing very few people or organizations who are actually trying to address this problem in anything like an organized fashion. Most everyone involved in climate change as a political issue is a scientist, a denier, or an activist whose efforts are directed at raising awareness or getting ordinary people to make small changes in their lives. Many other people are trying to address a technical piece of the issue (e.g. Elon Musk’s efforts at selling more electric cars), hoping that other people will pick up the other pieces and that this random agglomeration of activists and inventors will somehow fix the problem.

Imagine if the Allies had tried to expel the Nazis from France by relying on local militias to attack the Germans whenever they damn well felt like it, leaving the rest of us to contemplate whether it’s worthwhile to plant victory gardens.

Somehow, this is the approach we’re used to taking in America. We are just libertarian, or perhaps anarchistic, enough to think that the invisible hand of the market, or perhaps a leaderless coalition of activists a la the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, will create magic. Meanwhile, coal plants and trucking companies chug along as usual, and activists are obliged to travel to their protests by car.

What we need is a Central Climate Command (CCC). We need an organization that will coordinate climate change mitigation efforts throughout the globe. This organization must create a plan for the whole world to follow, with different roles for each ordinary citizen, each business executive, each local politician, each Senator, each right-minded billionaire. There should be a place to go for succinct updates on the world’s progress. There must be a series of enormous media campaigns on the subject, letting people know about The Plan, letting people know how they can contribute, and showing them what impact their actions are having. There should be YouTube channels and Facebook ads and Twitter accounts and newspaper articles on the subject.

The Plan has to be created within a short space of time (a few months at most) by an independent team of climate scientists, economists, activists, and a diverse array of professionals. Put James Hansen in the same room with Paul Krugman. Biologists, engineers, city planners, accountants, industry experts must all work together. Climate activists must continue raising awareness. They have not done all that is necessary, but the work that they have done is crucial. The Plan must include plenty of outreach, plenty of policy recommendations, and also a suite of technical solutions that can be put in place by private individuals.

Social justice activists are critical to this effort as well. They know better than anyone else what different kinds of people need in order to thrive. Get them in the same room with the climate scientists and engineers, and figure out technical solutions that work for everyone – men and women, adults and children and the elderly, the abled and the disabled, people of every racial and ethnic identity, queer people and straight people, wealthy people and poor people.

Talk to indigenous peoples the world over. Indigenous specialists in economics, urban planning, biology, and other fields can be especially crucial. Any technical knowledge they may have on the subject of how to live happily without fossil fuels should be spread as far and wide as possible, and adapted to different kinds of communities, with full credit given. They should occupy positions of authority over land use and carbon emissions.

Talk to workers in carbon-intensive industries. When we start building electric railroads, electric buses, thousands of e-bike companies, etc. we will need their help too. Make sure they know that although they may be getting steady wages now, it may not be enough for their children and grandchildren to afford oxygen tanks and soy bricks in the difficult and deadened future they are currently building.

The CCC should consider doing things that have previously been considered impossible, like, for example, getting the federal government to do its part, or even getting Republicans to buy in. Make the movement so big that it takes over the federal government. So big that it sweeps the current Dem-GOP paradigm away. So big we could even amend the Constitution of the United States and make it truly serve us.

We need new political philosophies. We must keep in our minds the knowledge of what makes life good – good health, flavorful food, beautiful natural landscapes, knowledge, freedom, jokes shared with friends – and provide the possibility thereof to each person in a way that won’t steal life and joy from the people of the future. We must build on the work that Earth Guardians has done, and envision a Constitution that guarantees that the federal government and all the state governments will work to maintain a livable world for all people, citizens and non-citizens, living people and those yet to be born.

To do this, we must think of carbon in the way we think of water. Water is life, and it is more useful to us in certain places than in others. We cannot drink from the ocean, so we must guard sources of fresh water. Carbon is life as well. We must take care to put much more of it into living things, and much less of it into the air. Capitalism can be a fine thing, but it is constrained by our laws in some areas (for example, free-market assassination services are not allowed), and it certainly should be constrained in this area.

One of the biggest goals of the CCC should be to improve the way the federal government collects and uses revenue. Progressive taxation is the only way to sensibly increase revenues, and since increased revenues are the only way to sensibly fund some of the massive programs we will need to quickly put in place, the CCC should fight hard for good tax policy.

In the meantime we should begin a (progressive, wealth-based) voluntary climate tithe, to create a fund that we can use to replace coal plants with solar farms, to fund efforts to make oil-burning cars illegal, to fast-track all-electric transit systems in every city in the U.S., to get small towns ready for the great electric passenger train boom.

Is this too ambitious? No. It is exactly as ambitious as we have to be.


[1] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions