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Oligarch of the Month: Jeff Bezos

Matthew Staver/Bloomberg/Getty

Jeff Bezos is having a good pandemic. Amazon, the company he started in 1994, has not only resisted the economic downturn, it has thrived: Its stock price sits hundreds of points higher than it did in March, and Bezos’s own net worth, which was depleted by his recent divorce—the most expensive in history—has ballooned by $32 billion since the start of the year. Over the last decade, he has purchased The Washington Post, invested in space exploration, and gotten a glow up. (Once the prototypical nerd—boxy khakis, a braying laugh—he now looks like Vin Diesel playing Lex Luthor.) He seems, in short, to be living his best life.

But Bezos’s stratospheric fortunes couldn’t be further removed from the conditions his employees are facing in the Covid-19 era. Amazon’s warehouses, already known for their dangerous conditions, low pay, and Orwellian surveillance, have now become vectors of disease; dozens of workers have fallen ill with the coronavirus. When one, Christian Smalls, organized a strike, he was quickly fired. Bezos, former Obama press secretary Jay Carney, and other top company officials then convened a meeting where they planned to smear him as “not smart, or articulate.”

Carney’s involvement is no accident: For years, Amazon has leveraged political connections to stave off regulation and expand its empire. Despite the company’s stranglehold on online retail, it posts sizable losses that are only occasionally offset by its profitable cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services. This strategy has regularly allowed it to skip paying federal income taxes. When New York City threatened to make the company pay more, Amazon simply yanked its plans to build a new headquarters there. (Virginia, where it is now building the campus, has proved more pliant; the state has forked over $750 million in grants, and promised to warn Bezos when someone takes out a Freedom of Information request on his company.)

The Senate, flirting with antitrust regulation, has summoned Bezos to Washington to testify about Amazon’s business practices. He has not said whether he plans to appear. But if he does, there’s no question he will walk into the Capitol like he owns the place. After all, he basically does.