Don’t Think About Money. Think About Stuff

There has been a lot of fuss in the last few weeks about the ridiculously large wealth of Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos. Bloomberg recently reported that Bezos has increased his wealth by $67 billion just this year ($8 million per hour!), which is about 8 times as much as the other 499 billionaires Bloomberg tracks have increased their wealth combined. So you could say he’s doing pretty well for himself.

Of course, this insane achievement has brought out the usual suspects (and even some unusual ones). Bernie Sanders has been on a crusade against Bezos for a while now and has proposed a bill to force Amazon to pay for its workers welfare benefits. It’s literally called the “Stop BEZOS” bill (BEZOS here is an acronym for “Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies” – how creative). While Sanders’s views are not surprising, Fox pundit Tucker Carlson is also getting in on the Bezos-hating action. Here’s Carlson:

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is worth about $150 billion. That’s enough to make him the richest man in the world, by far, and possibly the richest person in human history. It’s certainly enough to pay his employees well. But he doesn’t. A huge number of Amazon workers are so poorly paid, they qualify for federal welfare benefits. According to data from the nonprofit group New Food Economy, nearly one in three Amazon employees in Arizona, for example, was on food stamps last year. Jeff Bezos isn’t paying his workers enough to eat, so you made up the difference with your tax dollars. Next time you see Bezos, make sure he says thank you.

I don’t want to get into the economics of Sanders and Carlson’s statements. Others have taken care of that (hint: Sanders’s tax isn’t going to do what he thinks it will). Instead, I want to touch on this point that the rich owe us something. That they should be thanking us. The reality is exactly the opposite. Next time you see Bezos, make sure you say thank you.

And I think the reason so many people have this concept exactly backwards is because we’ve been trained to think about everything in terms of money. Don’t think about money. Think about stuff.

Looking at Bezos’s monetary wealth on its own misses half of the equation. Sure Bezos has a ton of money. But the way he got that money was by creating an incredible business that revolutionized the retail market. Bezos gets $150 billion in pieces of paper (or more realistically, lines on a computer). We get Amazon. We get stuff (delivered across the country in 2 days or less). Now, of course Bezos does spend some of his wealth, and that’s not so good for our stuff. And his wealth does entitle him to a lot of our future stuff if he wants it. Maybe we’ll be worse off at the time. As for now, we’re making out like bandits.

Unfortunately I think what a lot of people have in mind when they think about the wealth distribution is a big pot of money. If Bezos takes $150 billion out of the pot that’s $150 billion the rest of us can’t use. This metaphor is absolutely the wrong way to think about wealth. Imagine Bezos never existed at all. His $150 billion is never created in the first place. The wealth doesn’t go back to the pot. It’s just gone. Half a million Amazon employees have to find other work. Hundreds of millions of consumers have to go back to shopping at Walmart. Now, there is another option, which is to redistribute Bezos’s wealth after he creates it. That’s a more justifiable policy than preventing him from ever earning it, but it can only be taken so far before it starts reducing the incentive to create – reducing the incentive to make stuff.

The same kind of mistaken thinking shows up in many other policy discussions. Take funding for higher education. Bernie Sanders’s solution is again focused on money. Pay for everyone to get a college education. But what about the stuff? Only so many people can go to Harvard. UCLA only has so many seats in a class. They already reject the vast majority of people who are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend. Making college free doesn’t do anything to change those facts (and actually it exacerbates the issue). Perhaps increased demand for education services would lead to an expansion of supply on the lower end, but college degrees only work by being somewhat exclusive (especially if the value of education is all signaling). It’s pretty hard to think of a solution that increases the supply of real educational services.

International trade is another good example. If the US imports from China, China gets a bunch of US dollars. The US gets a bunch of Chinese stuff. If we think about the US trade deficit, its essential to remember that it’s just a monetary deficit. But that money deficit gives us a huge stuff surplus. Is either side winning that transaction? China gets more dollars it can use to invest in US assets. US consumers get more cheap products from China. Unless you think you are getting ripped off by Amazon when you trade your dollars for a product, there’s no reason to believe the US consumer is getting a bad deal here either.

There is some nuance here that I’ve been deliberately avoiding. We don’t live in a pure exchange economy, which means money does matter. In economics, we sometimes make the mistake of going in the other direction by only worrying about stuff and never thinking about money. And sometimes it’s worth thinking about money, especially when it doesn’t work so well (as I’ve discussed in other posts). But even then, discussions of money should only be allowed if they’re in the context of figuring out how to get more stuff.

It’s really easy to get people more money. We can quite literally print it whenever we want. It’s a lot harder to get people more stuff. But stuff’s the stuff that really matters.

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