Now this is interesting. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, bought the Washington Post for $250 million after the newspaper went up for sale in what was described as a "highly secret" process. (That's right. An organization dedicated to discovering and reporting the truth just conducted a highly secret transaction. Make of that what you will.)
Which Jeff Bezos bought the capital's town newspaper -- the antitax crusader or the business innovator?
Between Bezos' libertarian politics and his extraordinary gifts in business, this could be a very good or a very bad thing. But either way, it will be something worth watching.
Bezos is described by people close to him as a "libertarian," a description he's never rejected. And while he's put up small sums of money for a few friendly Democratic politicians, Bezos spent considerably more -- something in the $100,000 range -- to defeat a millionaires' tax in his home state of Washington. And he spent $2.5 million to defend Washington's gay-marriage law.
Personal liberties plus a crusade against taxes? Sounds libertarian, all right. Bezos was also said to have exulted for years in the loophole which allowed Amazon to avoid paying sales tax on its billions of dollars in transactions.
Bezos appears to be a "digital libertarian," a breed of thinker which is widely seen among tech billionaires. The most notable feature of their ideology is the disharmony between their political beliefs and the source of their wealth. A libertarian, after all, is someone who believes in minimizing or ending government so that free-market entrepreneurs can reshape society in their image. But the "digital libertarians" wouldn't be billionaires at all if not for government.
Bezos is a case in point. His wealth originally came from two sources: Internet technology, and people who buy books. And where did those assets come from?
- The Internet was funded by the government -- specifically, the Defense Department.
- Most of the millions of readers who were Amazon's original customers learned to read in public schools, at government expense.
What paid for Mr. Bezos' wealthgiving resources? Taxes. Then Bezos used the money he earned from tax-funded resources to campaign against taxation. That seems pretty ungrateful, doesn't it?
But Bezos has also used his money for very worthy things, including the Blue Origin space project. He also reportedly donated a large amount of money to Danny Hillis' "Clock of the Long Now" project, a profound and reflective effort.
Which gets us to the next point: It's not that Digital Libertarians are cynical. In fact, they can be idealistic and even naïve -- so much so that they don't see the contradiction between their politics and the foundations of their corporate success.
The Best CEO in America?
And yet Bezos the CEO has been nothing short of brilliant, in both his business choices and in his design ideas. The latter lean more toward the intangible worlds of data structure than did Steve Jobs' more concrete creations, but they're no less imaginative. Warren Buffett reportedly called Bezos "the best CEO in the country," and he's probably right. In a corporate world which manages to the next quarterly report, Bezos has adamantly refused to think short-term. He has invested large sums of money and allowed Amazon's new products to develop over a period of years.
And Bezos has usually been right, even when nobody thought he would be right: The Kindle was considered a joke when Amazon began to develop it, and it has -- for better or worse -- transformed publishing. Amazon itself was a long-shot proposition when it was created, and it has transformed retail book selling.
His business insights have all the breadth, depth, and vision which seem to be absent from his political insights.