Friday, September 14, 2018

WTF, Bezos

Yes, all the hot takes on this news are written, but sometimes you just have to do your part to swell the crowd of people who are pointing out that something is stupid.

Jeff Bezos (and his wife) starting pre-K schools is stupid. Let me count the ways (in no particular order).

This damn guy

It's a stupid small pledge on his part. Yes, $2 billion is a chunk of money (aka more money than any teacher will ever make in their lifetime), but it's chump change to Bezos. As this piece points out, it's about 1% of his wealth. It's considerably less than some of his fellow billionaire dabblers have donated. This is the exact opposite of a "we'll spend whatever it takes to do this right" pledge.

His concept is stupid, as witnessed by the oft-quoted "the child will be the customer." This is, in its own way, as stupid as the many rich amateur education "experts" who insist that the child is the product. In our current hyper-commercial environment, as exemplified by the cutthroat capitalism of, the customer is a business's adversary, the mark from whom pennies must be shaken loose by any means necessary, in return for which, the vendor will provide the absolute minimum they can get away with. How is this a good model for schools? A business has no relationship with a customer (though it may serve the business well to dupe the customer into thinking there's a relationship there). The interactions are purely transactional-- you give me some money, I give you whatever goods or services the money was supposed to pay for. The rest of the customer's life and concerns are immaterial. How is this a good model for schools? Schools should help create educated citizens, help students become their best selves, create the public for a country; none of this is the same as creating customers. And customers, it should be noted, have to earn the right to be served by showing that they can plunk down the money.

The stupid keeps getting deeper because we already know about Bezos's treatment of people with whom he has a transactional relationship-- he screws them mercilessly. Amazon workers are notoriously poorly treated so that Bezos can make more money. Bezos has made cities dance and scrape and bow for the privilege of having him gift them with another amazon hq. A school should take care of the students it serves. When has Jeff Bezos ever taken care of anybody?

It's stupid because of the blinding hypocrisy. I know this has been said, but it deserves endless repetition-- Bezos wants to give money to the homeless, even as his corporation helped kill a tax bill in Seattle designed to help the homeless. But this isn't just hypocrisy-- it's a blatant example of modern fauxlanthropic privatization. It's about doing an end run around democratic-style government and insisting on commandeering the project yourself, in the same way that avoiding taxes is not just greedy, but is the Bezos way of saying that he will spend his money on his own terms, and if he's going to spend money on something, then he will by God own it himself.

It's stupid because of the sheer oligarchical privatizing balls displayed. If Bezos wants some of his money to go to improving schools, there's a mechanism in place for that; it's called "paying your taxes." If Bezos wants a say in how schools are operated, there's a mechanism in place for that; it's called "running for school board." The country is not served by having vital institutions dependent on the largesse of the wealthy. We are not served by falling back into a system in which cities get their schools or water supplies by convincing some rich patron to take care of them.

It's stupid because the poor Montessori people are once again having their "brand" co-opted by somebody who doesn't even get it. Bezos's schools will apparently be sort of Montessori-flavored, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.

It's stupid because it is soaked in tech-giant arrogance. Note that Bezos says nothing along the lines of, "I will bring in the top education experts to don this right." Experts, shmexperts. Bezos will just "use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession." In other words, running a school or a giant internet-based mail order business is pretty much the same thing, so I already know everything I need to know. Even if Amazon weren't built on a mountain of worker abuse aimed at working the customers over, this would still be an arrogant, stupid thing to say.

God only knows why Bezos is doing this. You can say he just wants to improve his image by doing something For The Children, but does Bezos even have to care about what his image is? Perhaps he's just decided that on top of Amazon and the Washington Post he'd like to own some schools.

I saw someone suggest that at least our leading Very Rich Guy was putting his money in a good place. To which I say, no. Education does not need one more self-important rich guy mucking around and playing with children's lives because it makes him feel all warm inside. If there's a huge fire in an apartment building, the fire department does not need a sidewalk clogged with a bunch of amateurs with their homemade fire fighting modified super-soakers. You don't get top elbow your way into an operating room in the middle of critical surgery hollering, "Out of my way. I'm really rich and I have some ideas about how to do this surgery that I came up with while fishing on my yacht." If you want to be helpful, ask the people who are doing the work what they need. Pay your taxes. Do your part to make your corner of the world more equitable and just. Take good care of the people who work for you. And stop imagining that because you once went to a school and you've run a successful business, you are somehow qualified to be in charge of education.


  1. We voters must vote to fund public education. Bezos must pay his employees a living wage, pay for health benefits and retirement benefits!

  2. It's not stupidity; it's market-building, not just for him but for all the pre-k, human-capital impact investors out there. This $2 billion, or the part of it that will go to the academies, is just grease to get this machine moving. We should all be incredibly concerned, especially those of us with young children at home.

    You say only God knows. Perhaps only God knows for sure, but some us have a pretty good idea of where this is headed. I describe it here. We'll just have to see how it all plays out. But it's not stupid.

  3. You need to rethink capitalism as cooperation.