Though readers can’t exactly raise their hands, this column asks readers to at least internally raise them if they’ve purchased something on Amazon in the past month. The column would also like to know how many readers have used the internet in the past hour, but the question is redundant: If you’re reading this column, you’re using the internet. In that case, how long could you go without internet access before losing your mind in the figurative sense?
Probably not very long. Evidence supporting the previous claim is all around us. When people aren’t at their desks working on internet-connected computers, they’re almost invariably tapping away on internet-connected smartphones. Look around you. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say “everyone” is on the internet nearly all of the time.
That so many of us view the internet as essential to our existence is a certain sign that most of us have no major problem with rising wealth inequality. Think about it. It’s easy to see the connection between frenetic internet usage and soaring inequality. And for the readers certain that they in no way cheer a rising wealth gap, they might ask themselves if they hate inequality enough to forever renounce their laptop, smartphone, high-speed WiFi, the future promise of 5G, and any other technology that connects people. Absent the world going cold turkey on ever-improving technology, wealth inequality is going to grow and grow. Wonderful. Life will get better as the super-talented are able to reach more and more of the world with their genius. The internet is most certainly the biggest driver of rising wealth inequality in the world, and nothing else comes close.
This brings us to the column by Farhad Manjoo, technology writer for the New York Times. In it, Manjoo writes that “Jeff Bezos should spend his vast fortune pushing for a society where no one can ever become as rich as Jeff Bezos is now.” It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry or how to analyze what is so obtuse and contradictory. Bezos got rich by virtue of relentlessly meeting the needs of his global customer base, and because he did, Manjoo wants Bezos to spend his fortune making sure no future individual achieves on the scale that Bezos has? Oh, dear…
Implicit in Manjoo’s confusion is that he would have preferred that Bezos had quit tinkering with books, CDs and DVDs. If not the latter, what is Manjoo’s problem with Bezos being so rich? Bezos’s wealth is largely an effect of Amazon’s shares; investors have placed a high value on them given their belief that Bezos will continue to figure out ways to please a growing customer base, yet Manjoo writes as though what Bezos did was a bad thing. By this measure, the late Steve Jobs should have stopped at the iPod, and Mark Zuckerberg should have limited Facebook just to kids at elite American colleges. Reducing all of this to the absurd, would Manjoo blanch at a mass-produced cancer cure if he knew the creator would earn billions for creating it? What about a cure for paralysis?
All of the above is a long way of musing about what Manjoo could possibly mean by his droolings. It’s evident he thinks Bezos has succeeded too much, but then Bezos, Jobs, and Zuckerberg were and are worth billions precisely because few of us could go too long without utilizing their creations. As opposed to limiting the number of people like Bezos, it seems the world would be much better off if there were hundreds like him. Only richer.
Bezos Revolutionized the Internet—and the World
What about the internet more broadly? Manjoo claims that “Mr. Bezos’s extreme wealth” is a function of the “unequal impact of digital technology,” but what he leaves out is that Bezos wasn’t always worth billions. In fact, there was a time when Bezos was ridiculed for presuming the internet had any kind of potential as a connector of buyers and sellers. If Manjoo doubts this, he need only visit the majority of venture capitalists and investors who either passed on backing Amazon in its early days or who consistently passed on buying the shares of what used to be described as “Amazon.org.” Manjoo also misses that the “unequal impact of digital technology” wasn’t handed to Bezos as much as he created it. He saw the commercial potential of the internet long before others did.
Thinking about all this, short of Bezos somehow using his wealth to shut down the internet altogether, there’s quite simply no way he could push for “a society where no one can ever become as rich as Jeff Bezos is now.” Having pioneered what is brilliant, more and more brilliant minds like Bezos will meet the needs of more and more of the world’s population via the usage of the internet that Bezos revolutionized. While 100 years ago an immensely talented entrepreneur like Bezos could arguably only improve the lives of people in Seattle with his genius, the global interconnectivity the internet personifies means Bezos can increasingly serve the needs of the world from Seattle.
Better yet, this interconnectivity is only going to become more pronounced. If 5G lives up to its billing, the ability of the talented to meet our myriad needs is only going to grow, and with it, so will inequality. Sorry, but the internet you can’t live without is the driver of wealth inequality that is set to soar. Thank goodness. Rising inequality in terms of wealth is a sign of shrinking lifestyle inequality between the rich and poor. Think about it. Entrepreneurs generally amass great wealth by virtue of mass-producing the goods and services previously only enjoyed by the rich.
Manjoo ultimately wants Bezos to direct his wealth toward creating a more “equal” society whereby the “have-nots” have access to what the “haves” do, but in clamoring for this false utopia, he’s unwittingly calling for exactly the rising wealth inequality he bemoans. Indeed, Manjoo ignores that money on its own has no uses. Money is only useful insofar as it can be exchanged for goods and services. Applied to Bezos, the redistribution of his dollars to the alleged “have-nots” will only improve the lives of the downtrodden insofar as they can exchange them for life’s comforts. Crucial here is that Bezos got rich providing those comforts. Manjoo oddly wants to make sure no one ever eclipses Bezos, but Bezos giving away his billions to the poor will mean nothing to the poor if there aren’t people like Bezos constantly figuring out ways to meet the needs of the people. All this is an inconvenient truth for statists like Manjoo—and card-carrying socialists, too: They only have a voice and a purpose if the capitalist economy is thriving whereby they can obnoxiously call for the forceful seizure of the wealth produced by the capitalists. The capitalists don’t need socialists, but my oh my, how the socialists need capitalists.
The endlessly confused Manjoo is unsurprisingly caught in a total contradiction. He wants the poor to enjoy the trappings of the unequal, and he wants people like Bezos to finance this equalization but doesn’t want anyone ever again getting as rich as Bezos. But again, redistributed wealth has no meaning if the profit-motivated aren’t bringing goods and services to the market at the same time. Basically, Manjoo naively wants Bezos without all the wealth creation, which is an impossibility. Even if Bezos drops all of his billions into the poorest parts of the world from helicopters, those dollars will only be useful to the poor to the extent that a future Bezos is getting filthy rich serving them…Think about it. Farhad Manjoo obviously hasn’t.
John Tamny is a Forbes contributor, editor of RealClearMarkets, a senior fellow in economics at Reason, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research & Trading. He’s the author of the 2016 book Who Needs the Fed? (Encounter), along with Popular Economics (Regnery Publishing, 2015).