COMMENTARY: Amazon’s showdown with elected officials in its hometown has been fascinating to cover, disappointing to watch, and ultimately not healthy for anyone.
Watching the fight over Seattle’s proposed “head tax” on big companies, I’ve been thinking about a solution that would be superior by each of those measures. It involves Amazon stepping up, the City Council backing down, and Seattle living up to its potential as one of the most innovative places in the world.
Far more than the measly $75 million the city is trying to raise through the tax, this idea has the potential to actually solve or at least significantly improve the homeless crisis. And, in the process, put our community on a path to a bright future.
Yes, it would also be a great story for GeekWire to cover — but a constructive and positive one for the community and the world.
The solution: Amazon.org.
No, this organization doesn’t exist yet — but it should. It’s time for the tech giant to establish a $1 billion philanthropic arm to tackle some of society’s grand challenges, applying its renowned ingenuity and financial resources to some of the biggest problems facing the world. Homelessness should be top of the list, and Seattle should serve as the test market for solutions that could ultimately be applied elsewhere across the country and potentially around the world.
The City of Seattle and Washington state also need to put some skin in the game here, and while I don’t know exactly what that would look like, there are models of public-private partnerships. One possible solution is a financial matching program from the city or state, similar to the deal struck in 2011 between businesses like Boeing and Microsoft and the Washington State Legislature to create better educational opportunities through the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship.
Funding a similar program to combat homelessness would be a challenge, but doable. And the key point here is this: Everyone needs to work together in a meaningful way.
I am just tired of the shouting, grandstanding and lack of action. If people don’t step up and lead, nothing will get fixed.
Using Seattle as a test bed is a familiar practice in Amazon’s business, having conducted trials of numerous consumer services in Seattle (Amazon Go, Amazon Flex, Amazon Books, Amazon Fresh, Amazon Pickup and many others) before rolling them out to the rest of the country and ultimately the world. Amazon also is not shy about tackling extremely complex challenges as evidenced by its recent partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to attempt to fix the U.S. healthcare system.
But this new initiative would be separate from the company’s commercial operations.
And while this may come as a surprise to the company’s critics, it would actually serve as a natural progression from what the company is already doing, including its partnerships with Mary’s Place and FareStart on its Seattle headquarters campus. This is just on a grander scale, with more impact.
It is also smart business, opening new opportunities for a company that’s “willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.” Amazon’s guiding leadership principles — including “think big,” “dive deep” and “deliver results” — could be put into practice in a compelling manner. And helping to solve the crisis would lift potential consumers — buyers of Amazon’s products and services — out of poverty and stressful situations.
Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos have been getting increasingly philanthropic. Bezos is no Bill Gates in this realm, yet, but he and his family have made donations to such causes as scholarships for Dreamers ($33 million) and cancer research ($35 million) that collectively dwarf the new tax the company would have to pay under proposals from the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan. Amazon as a company has also been getting more philanthropic, including a $10 million donation to the University of Washington computer science expansion.
Bezos has been criticized for funding his Blue Origin space venture at a rate of $1 billion a year. However, the Amazon CEO has also been laying the groundwork for a bigger philanthropic push, making a public call for ideas, and promising that there would be “more to come.”
What’s more, Bezos has been looking into homelessness specifically. During an Axel Springer award ceremony in Berlin in April, he talked about a potential area to target.
When you go study homelessness, there are a bunch of causes of homelessness Mental-incapacity issues are a very hard-to-cure problem. Serious drug addictions are very hard-to-cure problems. But there is another bucket of homelessness is this transient homelessness. Which is, you know, a woman with kids, the father runs away and he was the only person providing any income. They have no support system; they have no family. That’s transient homelessness. You can really help that person, and by the way, you only have to help them for six to nine months. You get them trained. You get them a job. They are perfectly productive members of society.
Sounds like the perfect starting point for Amazon.org’s first grand challenge.
Why $1 billion? Yes, it’s arbitrary, but the number makes a statement, dwarfs the $75 million the city would raise through the head tax, and amounts to about 6 percent of Amazon’s current $16 billion cash balance. There’s also a precedent with such programs as Google.org, Microsoft Philanthropies and similar initiatives from other tech giants.
Of course, Amazon likes to follow its own path in everything it does. But the big brains and wizards sitting in Amazon’s glass spheres — and its more than 40,000 employees that now call Seattle home — could noodle on interesting ways to implement this concept in their own unique way.
Here’s the problem: This really doesn’t work as a negotiating tactic with the city in the conflict over the proposed head tax. In the current climate, it would be viewed as self-interested. This needs to rise up organically from Amazon. If the company had set up this type of initiative years ago, using Seattle as a philanthropic petri dish, its relationship with its hometown would likely be much different today. Instead, here we are, stuck at what appears to be an impossible impasse.
A philanthropic effort of this scale would have been a pretty unrealistic expectation given the epic scope of the company’s business, and its unprecedented growth over the past 10 years. But now seems like the right moment.
And that’s where our city’s leaders and citizens would need to take a leap of faith. I know that is a lot to ask, given the history and the circumstances. It certainly doesn’t work if Amazon continues to implicitly threaten to stop growing in the city in response to the head tax.
In short, there are a million ways this specific idea could go wrong. But as a longtime Seattle resident who loves this city and has witnessed first-hand Amazon’s ability to change the world, I hope we can take a step back from the small and petty, and recognize the potential to do something big and meaningful — whatever that may turn out to be.
Will we let rifts widen, leaving a broken and unfixable system? Or will we as a community step up and march together?