June 14, 2020
by Steve Stofka
Here’s a question that comes up in our public discourse. What obligation does Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, have to the workers at the company? Amazon is a public company as well. What about the obligation to shareholders of the company’s stock? What obligation does Mr. Bezos have to the personal capital – money, knowledge, time and risk – that he has invested in the company?
Mr. Bezos is one of a number of people who have helped engineer an extraordinary transition into today’s digital age. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, is another example familiar to readers. Both men have donated billions of their wealth to charity and public causes, including health care and climate change.
Each month these titans of technology implicitly send many of us a dividend check. We receive the dividend whether we own Amazon or Microsoft stock. The dividend is not included in government survey data because it is hard to quantify. The dividend is our time and time is money.
To understand this analysis, let’s step into an alternate reality, one familiar to older readers. Payments are done with cash and checks. Few merchants accept credit cards. Checks take 5-7 days to clear. There is no mail-in banking or electronic deposits. There are no picture IDs. We have stepped into a reality that looks like 1980.
This world is rocked with a global pandemic. Congress passes a relief and stimulus bill that provides money to each adult in the country. We all wait for our pandemic stimulus checks. People steal the checks out of the mailboxes of people with common last names like Smith, Sullivan and Gonzalez. If the thief does not share that last name, they can sell the check to underground brokers who will find someone with that exact name.
Once we receive our stimulus checks, we go to the bank and stand in a long line. We always bring something to read or a crossword puzzle to pass the time while we wait. We are practiced at waiting.
If we have a checking or savings account, we can deposit the stimulus check but not cash it unless we already have the money in our account to cover the amount. We cannot spend the funds until the government check clears in 5-7 days.
After 3 days we start calling the bank to see if the funds are available. The teller is polite but no it hasn’t cleared yet. After a few more days it clears and we can write a check to pay our rent but there is a late fee. Some us went to a paycheck store and cashed our check after showing 2 forms of ID. Some will take a utility bill as one form of ID. They charge a fat fee as well.
Most of us enjoy the convenience of modern banking and payment services without paying much attention. Little of that time saving convenience is captured in government surveys. How much time do we save every month? 4 hours? 8 hours? What is that convenience worth? That’s our technology dividend.
Let’s do another common task in our imaginary world – send an email. We need to return a form and we want a record of our communication so we don’t use the phone. We go down to the public library, where the librarian faxes a scan of our paper (Borth, 2020). If we have a message but not a form, we can go to the telegraph office and they will send the message to another telegraph office where the recipient can pick it up.
Since we are nearby, let’s go to the Post Office to get stamps. A fifteen minute wait but we are practiced at waiting. Once we are done at the Post Office, the office supply store is just two blocks away. We need some new typewriter ribbon. Our essay for school is due next Monday and typed papers get a ½ grade bonus. Oh yeah, we want some typewriter ink erasers and a box of paper. The total is a half day’s pay for a person working at minimum wage.
The post office, library and office store are all closed by 5 or 6 P.M. and are not open on weekends, so we take some time off from work to get all this stuff done. Either we call in sick and take the whole day off or fake being sick after lunch and take the afternoon off.
The grocery store closes at 6 PM on weekdays, too late to do shopping after work. It is closed on Sundays, so we do our shopping on Saturday. There are long waits at the cashier but we are practiced at waiting.
All of this inconvenience took time. An average wage in 1980 was almost $7 an hour, about $22 in today’s purchasing power (BLS, n.d.). How much is my technological dividend each month? Let’s make the math easy and call it $100, almost 5 hours of time saving each month.
Let’s return to our question of obligation, but ask it of ourselves – do we have an obligation to donate our technological dividend each month? This could be in the form of time or money. Decades ago utility companies in New York State charged urban customers higher rates to subsidize rural customers living in areas where providing service was more expensive. “We are part of a larger community. We share the burden,” my mother replied to my complaint that this was unfair. How many of us have that sense of community?
We are far better at recognizing the obligations of others than our own. We are more comfortable discussing the duties of others. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of the human tendency to notice the speck in another’s eye and disregard the splinter in our own eye. That was 2000 years ago. In the past two decades, we have seen many changes in our daily lives but the essential qualities of our nature have changed little in two millennia.
2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato asked what are our obligations. We are still working on the answer. Plato, give us just a few more centuries and we’ll get back to you on that.
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash
BLS (n.d.) Average Hourly Earnings of Production and Nonsupervisory Employees, Total Private, FRED Series AHETPI. Federal Reserve. Retrieved from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/AHETPI
Borth, D. E. (2020, February 18). Fax. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/technology/fax
3 thoughts on “Obligations”
Question: Bezos donates to the greater good. That’s good. Good good good. But why not “give” to higher wages and benefits? I read that his wife wound up with $38 billion in the divorce settlement. A portion of an overall fortune. I know that’s not cash, but it seems like SO MUCH money to me. Jesus said to sell all you have and give it to the poor and come, follow him. What if you’re not into Jesus? Okay, well, still, why not sell a bit of what you have and give your workers a better life? Do anyone really need Jesus to point that out to them?
But that isn’t in the spirit of things, I know. This really is about me, Beth, asking, “what can I do?” To bring the “kingdom” of God, to bring it, build it, whatever, takes everyone. We must all take the spirit of Tikkun olam to heart.
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tikkun_olam#Improving_the_world. Jesus was a Jew, so thanks to the influence of Jesus on Western history and civilization, we are all Jews, which is awesome and definitely comes with obligations.)
It’s not actually hard to do. Think what our world would be, if everyone did it. How do we reach a point where everyone does it? There’s only one way. It’s not by looking around to see if Jeff Bezos is doing it. We mend the world by looking within, and doing it.
Goodness, you make me preachy. Or thoughtful. Take your pick. 😛
Do the workers stand at the front of the line to receive Bezos’ goodwill? Are they in front of the poor or other causes? Who orders the line? Is that the essence of ethics – a study and discussion of how the line is ordered?
And BTW these are the kinds of responses I leave in discussions and on papers which is why I work too hard and too long. Recommendations for adjusting down are welcome.