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?

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