Pigs feeding

How you’re like Jeff Bezos

But maybe not in a good way. Every third Facebook post or so mentions that ole’ Jeff should give away his billions and that would fix everything. I used to hear this about the Catholic Church, but Bezos is become the new favorite target. Why shouldn’t he—after all, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett give away buckets.

Here’s where you come in. Do you have a nice house? Decent car? Relatively recent wardrobe? Stash of wine, beer, booze, weed? Most of us (reading a personal finance blog) can answer yes to at least some of those. So, let’s say you’re now out of work. Don’t know how that happened. Can you pay the bills with any of that? Write a check off your house (without refinancing)? Pay the utilities with a 24-pack of craft brew? Cash out your 401k with no penalty, no tax, and not losing the employer match? Just how much are you giving to charity?

Truthfully, I don’t know any insider details about Jeff Bezos’ money. But I do know the difference between assets and income. Assets are wealth, and add to your net worth, but they may or may not produce spending money for you.

You can be a little old lady in a paid-off $2 million dollar house (an asset), but be scraping by on Social Security (income) if you don’t have any other income-producing assets like bonds, dividend paying stocks, or stocks you can sell. You would have a high net worth but very little ability to spend.

As far as I can determine, post-divorce Bezos owns about 11% of Amazon’s $1.175 trillion, so we’re not feeling too sorry for him. He also owns the Washington Post and, my guess, one or two shares in other companies. However, like your wine collection, Bezos has to sell Amazon to get money out of that wealth, which he does. He can’t just dump them whenever he feels the need for a $100 billion or so in chump change, because an insider making huge sales is a pretty good way to tank the company. Amazon doesn’t pay any dividends (Microsoft does) so selling stock is his source of income from the company. Sure, they pay him $81k in salary (kind of a joke), but the rest comes from stock grants, some of which he apparently sells each quarter. The market expects those sales, so no big impact, but liquidating and giving away half his wealth would raise an eyebrow or 10,000 on Wall Street.

By the way, it’s somewhat the same with the Catholic Church—an awful lot of the wealth of the Church is in real estate, structures, art works and artifacts, etc. Many of these are not easily sold, although some (real estate) can produce income. Let’s say, for example, you have a grand piano and a house, you have the mini-version of assets that don’t produce income (unless sold). If it’s your mom’s Steinway or your kid’s harp, it might be very difficult for you to countenance turning that to cash.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have pledged to give away huge portions of their fortunes, but not all at once and mostly through their foundations. Bezos could certainly do the same, as well as vastly improve treatment of workers. But here’s something overlooked: a publicly traded company has a duty to maximize return to shareholders (of which you are probably one, if you have a 401k). A company is supposed to be run as frugally as possible in order to return the most to its investors.

Business practices can and do change when workers organize themselves in such a way that management must respond to their demands or lose even MORE money than that response would cost—and why most companies fight unionization tooth and nail, until strikes, vandalism, pilferage, etc. start costing more than meeting workers demands. It’s ridiculous to assume management will take care of you or is benevolent: when publicly traded, they have a duty to get you as cheaply as possible.

Another agent for change is government regulation—when those regulations impose costs of doing business that the company can’t evade, and that (hopefully) are imposed on all businesses in the industry evenly. Regulatory agencies such as OSHA, the Consumer Protection Bureau, FINRA, and the EEOC can and sometimes used to strike fear (and produce change) in the hearts of employers.

Finally, the way to get money out of the hands of the company (and CEO, and investors, which also means you if you invest in a 401k) is taxation. Sure, companies howl about this and saber rattle about going somewhere else (which can also be addressed by regulation), but western European corporations still seem able to operate even when taxed.

So if you think Jeff Bezos should be compelled to provide better working conditions, support health care, or re-distribute wealth to his workers and the society that enables his success, appealing to his personal good heart (I don’t know if he has one or not), or trying to shame him in public isn’t the way to go. Why should it be an option? Why should a very few people have the opportunity to amass that level of wealth, then be lauded as heroes if they’re magnanimous enough to give some fraction of it back to charities which mirror their own priorities?

What we should be advocating for is evenly applied government regulation, taxation, and strong partnerships with unionization. These actions might make a company less profitable in the short run, but provide for a healthier, better educated, more fairly treated workforce with a viable safety net not dependent on the largess, or lack thereof, of any smart rich person.

Posted in Charitable Giving, General Financial Planning, Tax planning and tagged , , , , , , , .

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