Is the world better off with Amazon in it? Is Jeff Bezos good for anyone apart from Jeff Bezos? Brad Stone sets out to examine these questions in Amazon Unbound, a serious, informed, well-written tome, which follows his earlier best seller The Everything Store. Sadly, he fluffs it by not giving us an answer.
The book ends: “Whatever you think about the company – and the man – that controls so much of our economic reality in the third decade of the twenty-first century, there is no turning back now.” Is that it? The reader who has made it through 400 plus pages might feel a bit cheated at this point; like someone who works at Amazon, perhaps.
Amazon workers do appear in the book, as bit part actors in someone else’s drama. Battles with labour unions are well covered, but only as just that, a fight, rather than a matter of justice. After one victory, “Amazon was getting perilously close to invincible,” but there is little discussion of what that peril might be. (In case you are thinking this is piousness from someone who shops only at Organic Hemp stores, I am theoretically ashamed to admit that I am one of Amazon’s best customers. In reality I stopped pretending to feel bad long ago. Another victory for Amazon. And for hypocrisy.)
The ins and outs of how certain Amazon products came to exist might be a little nerdy for some tastes, but if that’s your bag, it is all here. There is an amusing reminder that the tech giant had his own privacy invaded when “private” text messages between him and new girlfriend Lauren Sanchez became public. He was furious, a rare occasion when he is little more powerful than the rest of us against Big Tech.
No one could question the depth and sincerity of Stone’s reporting, but sometimes the fan boy leaks on to the page. At one point Bezos is wearing a tee-shirt that exposes “enormous biceps”…and became “the action hero of the business world”. First, get a room and second, if we are going to make business people into superheroes, surely Elon Musk, the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, is our guy.
One problem with the book is its approach to politics – just another irritant to be gamed. There are good accounts of whether Amazon might win big government contracts, none of whether it should. The Bezos plan to sink billions into India was not, in any sense, a somewhat imperial landgrab, it was “a renewal of Amazon’s manifest destiny – to sell not only everything, but everywhere”. Manifest destiny? Jeez. Does the author know what that means?
If you question that sort of messianic vision in America’s business press, you’re a communist, and Stone certainly doesn’t. His interest is always: will it work, not, is it good?Amazon’s “lessons learnt” from earlier failures are to all to do with business processes rather than being nicer. Nice, like lunch, is for wimps. Stone doesn’t seem to have had any access to Bezos, unless I missed that bit. Then again, if people write books like this about you without any access, why bother talking to them?
People only really get this rich via some level of exploitation of people, politics or environments. If markets were truly that competitive, Bezos would not be worth $190 billion. (Microsoft has been deemed a monopoly many times. It remains one of the biggest companies in history.) The sight of Bezos and Bill Gates gaining praise for shoving back some of those ill-gotten billions to good causes makes some of us a bit nauseous. The book is light on that, applauding Bezos for finally putting his great brain and fortune towards climate change, rather than asking what on earth took him so long.
Stone does cover Amazon’s fight to keep its tax bill as low as possible – a report last week had it that the company paid zero corporation tax on sales in Europe alone of £38 billion. The author says Amazon’s tax moves are “tactically brilliant”. The morality of them is for a different book. Even the chapter titled “Reckoning” the one that details the case against the business most fulsomely, ends with Amazon as “a life preserver, thrown to millions of households around the world” as we quarantined amid Covid-19. That we might have made it through without Amazon is not up for discussion.
Ultimately, like most American books about business people, it admires Bezos more than it is ever going to scald him. In US books, certainly those written by senior editors at Bloomberg, the very rich man is always going to be a hero. Perhaps the book we need here is from someone who understands the business world as much as Stone, but doesn’t revere it. Someone who doesn’t think a billion made is good in itself; that the means should be justified.
As for Bezos, well, his types come and go -- the rest of us have to live in his world while he’s here. Perhaps the main cause for optimism is from Bezos himself, who has predicted that Amazon will one day fail. “Amazon will go bankrupt”, he told staff. “If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be thirty-plus years, not a hundred-plus years.”
So we can expect Amazon’s demise by 2094. Something to look forward to.
Simon English is the Senior City Correspondent of the Evening Standard
Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone (Simon & Schuster, £20)