Jeff Bezos's Master Plan
The Atlantic|November 2019
Jeff Bezos's Master Plan
What he wants for his empire and himself, and what that means for the rest of us
Franklin Foer

1.O

Where in the pantheon of American commercial titans does Jeffrey Bezos belong? Andrew Carnegie’s hearths forged the steel that became the skeleton of the railroad and the city. John D. Rockefeller refined 90 percent of American oil, which supplied the pre-electric nation with light. Bill Gates created a program that was considered a prerequisite for turning on a computer.

At 55, Bezos has never dominated a major market as thoroughly as any of these forebears, and while he is presently the richest man on the planet, he has less wealth than Gates did at his zenith. Yet Rockefeller largely contented himself with oil wells, pump stations, and railcars; Gates’s fortune depended on an operating system. The scope of the empire the founder and CEO of Amazon has built is wider. Indeed, it is without precedent in the long history of American capitalism.

Today, Bezos controls nearly 40 percent of all e-commerce in the United States. More product searches are conducted on Amazon than on Google, which has allowed Bezos to build an advertising business as valuable as the entirety of IBM. One estimate has Amazon Web Services controlling almost half of the cloud-computing industry— institutions as varied as General Electric, Unilever, and even the CIA rely on its servers. Forty-two percent of paper book sales and a third of the market for streaming video are controlled by the company; Twitch, its video platform popular among gamers, attracts 15 million users a day. Add The Washington Post to this portfolio and Bezos is, at a minimum, a rival to the likes of Disney’s Bob Iger or the suits at AT&T, and arguably the most powerful man in American culture.

I first grew concerned about Amazon’s power five years ago. I felt anxious about how the company bullied the book business, extracting ever more favorable terms from the publishers that had come to depend on it. When the conglomerate Hachette, with which I’d once published a book, refused to accede to Amazon’s demands, it was punished. Amazon delayed shipments of Hachette books; when consumers searched for some Hachette titles, it redirected them to similar books from other publishers. In 2014, I wrote a cover story for The New Republic with a pugilistic title: “Amazon Must Be Stopped.” Citing my article, the company subsequently terminated an advertising campaign for its political comedy, Alpha House, that had been running in the magazine.

Since that time, Bezos’s reach has only grown. To the U.S. president, he is a nemesis. To many Americans, he is a beneficent wizard of convenience and abundance. Over the course of just this past year, Amazon has announced the following endeavors: It will match potential home buyers with real-estate agents and integrate their new homes with Amazon devices; it will enable its voice assistant, Alexa, to access health-care data, such as the status of a prescription or a blood-sugar reading; it will build a 3-million- square-foot cargo airport outside Cincinnati; it will make next-day delivery standard for members of its Prime service; it will start a new chain of grocery stores, in addition to Whole Foods, which it already owns; it will stream Major League Baseball games; it will launch more than 3,000 satellites into orbit to supply the world with high-speed internet.

Bezos’s ventures are by now so large and varied that it is difficult to truly comprehend the nature of his empire, much less the end point of his ambitions. What exactly does Jeff Bezos want? Or, to put it slightly differently, what does he believe? Given his power over the world, these are not small questions. Yet he largely keeps his intentions to himself; many longtime colleagues can’t recall him ever expressing a political opinion. To replay a loop of his interviews from Amazon’s quarter century of existence is to listen to him retell the same unrevealing anecdotes over and over.

To better understand him, I spent five months speaking with current and former Amazon executives, as well as people at the company’s rivals and scholarly observers. Bezos himself declined to participate in this story, and current employees would speak to me only off the record. Even former staffers largely preferred to remain anonymous, assuming that they might eventually wish to work for a business somehow entwined with Bezos’s sprawling concerns.

In the course of these conversations, my view of Bezos began to shift. Many of my assumptions about the man melted away; admiration jostled with continued unease. And I was left with a new sense of his endgame.

Bezos loves the word relentless—it appears again and again in his closely read annual letters to shareholders—and I had always assumed that his aim was domination for its own sake. In an era that celebrates corporate gigantism, he seemed determined to be the biggest of them all. But to say that Bezos’s ultimate goal is dominion over the planet is to misunderstand him. His ambitions are not bound by the gravitational pull of the Earth.

BEFORE BEZOS SETTLED on Amazon.com, he toyed with naming his unlaunched store MakeItSo.com. He entertained using the phrase because he couldn’t contain a long-standing enthusiasm. The rejected moniker was a favored utterance of a man Bezos idolizes: the captain of the starship USS Enterprise-D, Jean-Luc Picard.

Bezos is unabashed in his fanaticism for Star Trek and its many spin-offs. He has a holding company called Zefram, which honors the character who invented warp drive. He persuaded the makers of the film Star Trek Beyond to give him a cameo as a Starfleet official. He named his dog Kamala, after a woman who appears in an episode as Picard’s “perfect” but unattainable mate. As time has passed, Bezos and Picard have physically converged. Like the interstellar explorer, portrayed by Patrick Stewart, Bezos shaved the remnant strands on his high-gloss pate and acquired a cast-iron physique. A friend once said that Bezos adopted his strenuous fitness regime in anticipation of the day that he, too, would journey to the heavens.

When reporters tracked down Bezos’s high-school girlfriend, she said, “The reason he’s earning so much money is to get to outer space.” This assessment hardly required a leap of imagination. As the valedictorian of Miami Palmetto Senior High School’s class of 1982, Bezos used his graduation speech to unfurl his vision for humanity. He dreamed aloud of the day when millions of his fellow earthlings would relocate to colonies in space. A local newspaper reported that his intention was “to get all people off the Earth and see it turned into a huge national park.”

Most mortals eventually jettison teenage dreams, but Bezos remains passionately committed to his, even as he has come to control more and more of the here and now. Critics have chided him for philanthropic stinginess, at least relative to his wealth, but the thing Bezos considers his primary humanitarian contribution isn’t properly charitable. It’s a profitseeking company called Blue Origin, dedicated to fulfilling the prophecy of his high-school graduation speech. He funds that venture—which builds rockets, rovers, and the infrastructure that permits voyage beyond the Earth’s atmosphere—by selling about $1 billion of Amazon stock each year. More than his ownership of his behemoth company or of The Washington Post—and more than the $2 billion he’s pledged to nonprofits working on homelessness and education for low-income Americans— Bezos calls Blue Origin his “most important work.”

He considers the work so important because the threat it aims to counter is so grave. What worries Bezos is that in the coming generations the planet’s growing energy demands will outstrip its limited supply. The danger, he says, “is not necessarily extinction,” but stasis: “We will have to stop growing, which I think is a very bad future.” While others might fret that climate change will soon make the planet uninhabitable, the billionaire wrings his hands over the prospects of diminished growth. But the scenario he describes is indeed grim. Without enough energy to go around, rationing and starvation will ensue. Over the years, Bezos has made himself inaccessible to journalists asking questions about Amazon. But he shares his faith in space colonization with a preacher’s zeal: “We have to go to space to save Earth.”

At the heart of this faith is a text Bezos read as a teen. In 1976, a Princeton physicist named Gerard K. O’Neill wrote a populist case for moving into space called The High Frontier, a book beloved by sci-fi geeks, NASA functionaries, and aging hippies. As a Princeton student, Bezos attended O’Neill seminars and ran the campus chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. Through Blue Origin, Bezos is developing detailed plans for realizing O’Neill’s vision.

The professor imagined colonies housed in miles-long cylindrical tubes floating between Earth and the moon. The tubes would sustain a simulacrum of life back on the mother planet, with soil, oxygenated air, free-flying birds, and “beaches lapped by waves.” When Bezos describes these colonies—and presents artists’ renderings of them—he sounds almost rapturous. “This is Maui on its best day, all year long. No rain, no storms, no earthquakes.” Since the colonies would allow the human population to grow without any earthly constraints, the species would flourish like never before: “We can have a trillion humans in the solar system, which means we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. This would be an incredible civilization.”

Bezos rallies the public with passionate peroration and convincing command of detail. Yet a human hole remains in his presentation. Who will govern this new world? Who will write its laws? Who will decide which earthlings are admitted into the colonies? These questions aren’t explicitly answered, except with his fervent belief that entrepreneurs, those in his own image, will shape the future. And he will do his best to make it so. With his wealth, and the megaphone that it permits him, Bezos is attempting to set the terms for the future of the species, so that his utopia can take root.

IN A WAY, Bezos has already created a prototype of a cylindrical tube inhabited by millions, and it’s called Amazon.com. His creation is less a company than an encompassing system. If it were merely a store that sold practically all salable goods—and delivered them within 48 hours—it would still be the most awe-inspiring creation in the history of American business. But Amazon is both that tangible company and an abstraction far more powerful.

Bezos’s enterprise upends long-held precepts about the fundamental nature of capitalism—especially an idea enshrined by the great Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. As World War II drew to its close, Hayek wrote the essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” a seminal indictment of centralized planning. Hayek argued that no bureaucracy could ever match the miracle of markets, which spontaneously and efficiently aggregate the knowledge of a society. When markets collectively set a price, that price reflects the discrete bits of knowledge scattered among executives, workers, and consumers. Any governmental attempt to replace this organic apparatus—to set prices unilaterally, or even to understand the disparate workings of an economy—is pure hubris.

Amazon, however, has acquired the God’s-eye view of the economy that Hayek never imagined any single entity could hope to achieve. At any moment, its website has more than 600 million items for sale and more than 3 million vendors selling them. With its history of past purchases, it has collected the world’s most comprehensive catalog of consumer desire, which allows it to anticipate both individual and collective needs. With its logistics business—and its growing network of trucks and planes—it has an understanding of the flow of goods around the world. In otherwords, if Marxist revolutionaries ever seized power in the United States, they could nationalize Amazon and call it a day.

What makes Amazon so fearsome to its critics isn’t purely its size but its trajectory. Amazon’s cache of knowledge gives it the capacity to build its own winning version of an astonishing array of businesses. In the face of its growth, long-dormant fears of monopoly have begun to surface—and Amazon has reportedly found itself under review by the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice. But unlike Facebook, another object of government scrutiny, Bezos’s company remains deeply trusted by the public. A 2018 poll sponsored by Georgetown University and the Knight Foundation found that Amazon engendered greater confidence than virtually any other American institution. Despite Donald Trump’s jabs at Bezos, this widespread faith in the company makes for a source of bipartisan consensus, although the Democrats surveyed were a touch more enthusiastic than the Republicans were: They rated Amazon even more trustworthy than the U.S. military. In contrast to the dysfunction and cynicism that define the times, Amazon is the embodiment of competence, the rare institution that routinely works.

All of this confidence in Bezos’s company has made him a singular figure in the culture, which, at times, regards him as a flesh-and-blood Picard. If “Democracy dies in darkness”—the motto of the Bezos-era Washington Post—then he is the rescuer of the light, the hero who reversed the terminal decline of Woodward and Bernstein’s old broadsheet. When he wrote a Medium post alleging that the National Enquirer had attempted to extort him, he was hailed for taking a stand against tabloid sleaze and cyberbullying.

As Amazon has matured, it has assumed the trappings of something more than a private enterprise. It increasingly poses as a social institution tending to the common good. After it earned derision for the alleged treatment of its workers—some warehouse employees reported feeling pressured to forgo bathroom breaks to meet productivity targets, to cite just one example— it unilaterally raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour in the U.S., then attempted to shame competitors that didn’t follow suit. (Amazon says that employees are allowed to use the bathroom whenever they want.) As technology has reshaped its workforce, Amazon has set aside $700 million to retrain about a third of its U.S. employees for roles with new demands.

These gestures are partly gambits to insulate the company’s reputation from accusations of rapaciousness. But they also tie Amazon to an older conception of the corporation. In its current form, Amazon harkens back to Big Business as it emerged in the postwar years. When Charles E. Wilson, the president of General Motors, was nominated to be secretary of defense in 1953, he famously told a Senate confirmation panel, “I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” For the most part, this was an aphorism earnestly accepted as a statement of good faith. To avert class warfare, the Goliaths of the day recognized unions; they bestowed health care and pensions upon employees. Liberal eminences such as John K. Galbraith hailed the corporation as the basis for a benign social order. Galbraith extolled the social utility of the corporation because he believed that it could be domesticated and harnessed to serve interests other than its own bottom line. He believed businesses behave beneficently when their self- serving impulses are checked by “countervailing power” in the form of organized labor and government.

Of course, those powers have receded. Unions, whose organizing efforts Amazon has routinely squashed, are an unassuming nub of their former selves; the regulatory state is badly out of practice. So while Amazon is trusted, no countervailing force has the inclination or capacity to restrain it. And while power could amass in a more villainous character than Jeff Bezos, that doesn’t alleviate the anxiety that accompanies such concentration. Amazon might be a vast corporation, with more than 600,000 employees, but it is also the extension of one brilliant, willful man with an incredible knack for bending the world to his values.

2.0

After Jackie Bezos’s shotgun marriage to a member of a traveling unicyclist troupe dissolved, she dedicated herself to their only progeny. The teenage mother from Albuquerque became her son’s intellectual champion. She would drive him 40 miles each day so that he could attend an elementary school for high- testing kids in Houston. When a waitlist prevented him from entering the gifted track in middle school, she wheedled bureaucrats until they made an exception. Over the course of Bezos’s itinerant childhood, as his family traversed the Sun Belt of the ’70s, Jackie encouraged her son’s interest in tinkering by constantly shuttling him to RadioShack.

“I have always been academically smart,” Bezos told an audience in Washington, D.C., last year. This was a sentiment ratified by the world as he ascended the meritocracy. At Princeton, he flirted with becoming a theoretical physicist. On Wall Street, he joined D. E. Shaw, arguably the brainiest and most adventurous hedge fund of the ’90s. The firm would send unsolicited letters to dean’s-list students at top universities, telling them: “We approach our recruiting in unapologetically elitist fashion.”

The computer scientist who founded the firm, David E. Shaw, had dabbled in the nascent internet in the ’80s. This provided him with unusual clarity about the coming revolution and its commercial implications. He anointed Bezos to seek out investment opportunities in the newly privatized medium—an exploration that led Bezos to his own big idea.

When Bezos created Amazon in 1994, he set out to build an institution like the ones that had carried him through the first three decades of his life. He would build his own aristocracy of brains, a place where intelligence would rise to the top. Early on, Bezos asked job candidates for their SAT scores. The company’s fifth employee, Nicholas Lovejoy, later told Wired that interviews would take the form of a Socratic test. Bezos would probe logical acuity with questions like Why are manhole covers round? According to Lovejoy, “One of his mottos was that every time we hired someone, he or she should raise the bar for the next hire, so that the overall talent pool was always improving.” When Bezos thought about talent, in other words, he was self-consciously in a Darwinian mode.

By the logic of natural selection, it was hardly obvious that a bookstore would become the dominant firm in the digital economy. From Amazon’s infancy, Bezos mastered the art of coyly deflecting questions about where he intended to take his company. But back in his hedge-fund days, he had kicked around the idea of an “everything store” with Shaw. And he always conveyed the impression of having grand plans—a belief that the fiction aisle and the self-help section might serve as the trailhead to commanding heights.

In the vernacular, Amazon is often lumped together with Silicon Valley. At its spiritual center, however, Amazon is a retailer, not a tech company. Amazon needed to elbow its way into a tightly packed and unforgiving industry, where it faced entrenched entities such as Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and Target. In mass-market retail, the company with the thinnest margin usually prevails, and a soft December can ruin a year. Even as Bezos prided himself on his capacity for thinking far into the future, he also had to worry about the prospect of tomorrow’s collapse. At tightfisted Amazon, there were no big bonuses at year’s end, no business-class flights for executives on long hauls, no employee kitchens overflowing with protein bars.

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November 2019