“Emissions inequality” and Jeff Bezos’ houses

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has an estimated net worth in excess of $118 billion, which makes him “the richest man alive,” according to CNN. He owns “a 5.3 acre property in Medina, Washington, another home in Beverly Hills, California, a 30,000-acre ranch in Texas, and apartments in New York.”

But that is not all.

According to the Washingtonian, the richest man alive has been renovating a 27,000-square-foot Washington, D.C. mansion he purchased in 2016 for $23 million in cash. This renovation project, the Washingtonian reports, “includes 25 bathrooms, 11 bedrooms, five living rooms/lounges, five staircases, three kitchens, two libraries/studies, two workout rooms, two elevators–and a huge ballroom.”

In addition to these homes, Bezos also reportedly owns a Gulfstream G650ER private jet, which “burns right around 452.70 gallons of fuel per hour.”

“Our estimations show,” write economists Thomas Picketty and Lucas Chancel in their 2015 study “Carbon and Inequality: from Kyoto to Paris,” that the “top 1% richest Americans, Luxemburgers, Singaporeans, and Saudi Arabians are the highest individual emitters in the world, with annual per capital emissions above 200tCO2e.” The top one percent’s per capital emissions, Picketty and Chancel further find, is “about 50 times world average,” and signifies the level of emission inequality between the extremely wealthy and all other humans.

It is probably safe to say that Jeff Bezos is one of the highest individual carbon emitters on Earth. Moreover, given his 16% stake in Amazon–a high emitting corporation that has, over the last two years, “aggressively courted the fossil fuels industry, landing deals and partnerships with companies like BP, Shell, and Halliburton”–we can assume Bezos’ per capital emissions are greater than 50 times the world average.

This “emissions inequality” between Bezos and the rest of us is truly a reflection, if not a measure, of the wealth gap between the 1% and 99%. As such, it is necessarily inextricable from both national and global economic inequalities.

Even more, however, this emissions inequality is also inextricable from Amazon’s wage policies and labor practices.

How so?

Under Bezos’ watch, for instance, Amazon resisted–for years–raising employees’ hourly wages, even while Amazon was well on its way to becoming a trillion dollar company. As a consequence of this wage suppression, many Amazon employees had to rely on food stamps and other public assistance in order to make ends meet (this is why New York Representative Ocasio-Cortez recently decried Amazon’s “starvation wages”). Though it is true that, after much public pressure, the company in November 2018 finally raised hourly wages to $15 an hour, this modest increase in pay–as Politifact writer Bill McCarthy notes–probably won’t “change things for all employees.” Indeed, some continue to be, and will likely remain eligible for, as well as reliant on, government assistance.

Amazon has also aggressively resisted its workers’ efforts to form unions. For example, when corporate executives got wind that workers at Whole Foods–which Amazon owns–was starting to organize, the company sent to Whole Foods’ Team Leaders a “45-minute union-busting training video” that the company produced for just such occasions (this video was leaked to the press).

Meanwhile, Amazon has paid its CEOs handsomely. This past April, The Seattle Times reported that the company’s CEO pay ratio “was 1-to-58 in 2018.” In 2017, the ratio was 1-to-59. Andy Jassy and Jeff Wilke–the CEOs of “Amazon’s two biggest business units”–each received “total compensation of over $19.7 million.” Amazon’s senior vice president Jeff Blackburn “received $10.4 million,” and “chief financial officer Brian Olsavsky received $6.9 million.” The pay ratio for Wilke, “whose organization includes the warehouses and logistics operations where Amazon’s lowest-paid employees work,” is approximately “1-to-684.”

Because wage suppression and union-busting help to ensure that “an enormous and ever-increasing share of income growth goes to corporate profits and executive pay,” Amazon’s wage policies and labor practices have guaranteed that much of the wealth its workers produce goes to the company’s profits and to its CEOs’ generous salaries and bonuses. In this way, the company’s policies and practices help to produce national and global economic inequality.

Let’s not stop there, however.

This transfer of income growth puts into the hands of Bezos and the other high-paid executives more money with which to sustain and expand Amazon’s high carbon-emitting business processes and infrastructure, more money to invest in the company’s fossil fuel projects, more money with which to purchase their personal mansions, New York apartments and private jets – more money, in fact, with which to burn up the earth.

In other words, the power Amazon exerts to hold down its employees’ wages helps to produce not only emissions inequality between the 1% and the rest of us, but also the individual emission privileges and advantages Bezos himself enjoys (and that Amazon’s other CEOs likely enjoy). That $15 an hour helps to make Bezos’ per capital emissions 50 or more times the average.

No doubt all of this is true as well for other companies and CEOs (Walmart immediately comes to mind).

Let’s now frame this problem of emissions inequality from the bottom-up: the hardships that Amazon’s employees suffer on a day-to-day basis–scraping together money for rent, food, childcare, electricity bills, water bills; getting adequate health care for themselves and their children; sending their kids to underfunded and segregated schools; and, working under conditions that are often harsh, stressful and even dangerous–are the conditions upon which Bezos and Amazon’s other executives depend, at least in part, in order to live lifestyles through which they emit more greenhouse gases than most people on Earth will emit in their lifetimes.

These same conditions–produced in part by Amazon’s labor practices–ultimately make Amazon’s workers, and their workers’ families and communities, increasingly more vulnerable to our unfolding climate crisis.

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