We Have a Question for Jeff Bezos and Other Billionaires

Will you finally let your workers unionize?

As this was unfolding, most of Big Tech, including Amazon, sent white-collar workers home to “flatten the curve” and fight the pandemic. Tim saw company leadership go to great lengths to make sure this new system was working and actively seek feedback from the remote workers. Christy heard from a warehouse employee who said productivity targets made it difficult for workers to take a break even for hand washing without a mark on their record. Pay for warehouse workers starts at $15 an hour with minimal access to time off; in May Amazon ended the unpaid leave policy that for a few weeks allowed them to stay home if they had Covid-19 symptoms.The contrast in the treatment of knowledge and warehouse workers couldn’t be starker. Equally clear is the cause: One group has power, the other doesn’t.

Amazon’s decision to fire the activists was easy to make in the United States, where Amazon workers have no union and are left to fend for themselves. With no right to paid sick leave or protection from unfair dismissal, American workers are among the most vulnerable in the world to pressure from any employer, not just Amazon.

Union-represented Amazon workers in Spain, Italy, France and Germany initially failed to resolve their concerns through negotiation, but with court action, regulatory intervention and strikes, they got their needs addressed.

Let’s look at France: Unions there brought a civil case arguing that Amazon had taken inadequate steps to protect workers from infection risk and that it had sidestepped the unions’ statutory role. The court ordered Amazon to limit its sales to only “essential” items, or face harsh penalties until it could reach a safety agreement with the unions. Rather than negotiate, Amazon closed its French operations and appealed. But the appellate court also sided with the workers, who ultimately negotiated a settlement including mandatory union consultation over safety measures, union hiring of external experts to assess the measures’ effectiveness and a continued increase in workers’ hourly pay. The news from Europe shows that Amazon can work with unions and get good results.

Both of us want Amazon to share the wealth with workers and stop putting the relentless pursuit of revenue growth ahead of all other concerns. One way or another, this requires putting more power in the hands of workers. Regulation and legislation are part of the solution. But there’s no need to wait; power can be taken, not just given. That’s what unions are for.

Amazon is a data-driven company. It should recognize the evidence showing that countries with more collective bargaining have a stronger social fabric and better growth, and are more able to weather economic ups and downs. Businesses with collective bargaining relationships, including Auchan Retail and Carrefour, navigated the Covid-19 crisis with less disruption to their businesses and emerged with their reputations intact and even enhanced.

For its own future and the future of the global economy, Amazon should become more responsive to the women and men who’ve enriched shareholders and be willing to recognize and bargain with their representatives. When it comes to the rights of its workers, it should be a leader, not a laggard.

It’s not just Amazon: The need for more unionization is urgent across Big Tech. Amazon stands out because it combines the extraordinary profit margins of these companies with employing hundreds of thousands of front-line workers. There are fewer of these workers at the other iconic tech companies, but nevertheless their employees also deserve a voice over the issues that matter to them.

The question for Mr. Bezos and the billionaires of the world is: Are they ready to rise to the occasion? Will Big Tech listen to and work with its employees to help the world overcome the worst economic and social crisis in recent history?

Colonialism Made the Modern World. Let’s Remake It.

This is what real “decolonization” should look like.

“Decolonize this place!” “Decolonize the university!” “Decolonize the museum!”

In the past few years, decolonization has gained new political currency — inside the borders of the old colonial powers. Indigenous movements have reclaimed the mantle of “decolonization” in protests like those at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline. Students from South Africa to Britain have marched under its banner to challenge Eurocentric curriculums. Museums such as the Natural History Museum in New York and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels have been compelled to confront their representation of colonized African and Indigenous peoples.

But what is “decolonization?” What the word means and what it requires have been contested for a century.

After World War I, European colonial administrators viewed decolonization as the process in which they would allow their imperial charges to graduate to independence by modeling themselves on European states. But in the mid-20th century, anticolonial activists and intellectuals demanded immediate independence and refused to model their societies on the terms set by imperialists. Between 1945 and 1975, as struggles for independence were won in Africa and Asia, United Nations membership grew from 51 to 144 countries. In that period, decolonization was primarily political and economic.

As more colonies gained independence, however, cultural decolonization became more significant. European political and economic domination coincided with a Eurocentrism that valorized European civilization as the apex of human achievement. Indigenous cultural traditions and systems of knowledge were denigrated as backward and uncivilized. The colonized were treated as people without history. The struggle against this has been especially central in settler colonies in which the displacement of Indigenous institutions was most violent.

South Africa, where a reckoning with the persistence of the settler regime has gripped national politics, reignited the latest calls for decolonization in 2015 with the #RhodesMustFall movement. Students at the University of Cape Town targeted the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, but saw its removal as only the opening act in a wider struggle to bring white supremacy to an end. Under the banners of “more than a statue” and “decolonize the university,” students called for social and economic transformation to undo the racial hierarchies that persist in post-apartheid South Africa, free university tuition and an Africa-centered curriculum.

Now, partly riding the global surge of Black Lives Matter mobilizations, calls for decolonization have swept Europe’s former imperial metropoles. In Bristol, England, last month, protesters tore down the statue of Edward Colston, the director of the Royal African Company, which dominated the African slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Across Belgium, protesters have focused on statues of King Leopold II, who ruled the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) as his personal property from 1885 to 1908. King Phillipe II of Belgium recently expressed “regret” for his ancestor’s brutal regime, which caused the death of 10 million people.

Colonialism, the protesters insist, did not just shape the global south. It made Europe and the modern world. Profits from the slave trade fueled the rise of port cities like Bristol, Liverpool and London while the Atlantic economy that slavery created helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution. King Leopold amassed a fortune of well over $1.1 billion in today’s dollars from Congo. His vision of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which opened in 1910 soon after his death, reproduced a narrative of African backwardness while obscuring the violent exploitation of the Congolese.

By tearing down or defacing these statues, protesters burst open the national narrative and force a confrontation with the history of empire. This is a decolonization of the sensory world, the illusion that empire was somewhere else.

Laying a flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the statue of King Leopold or hauling the Colston statue into the sea, where thousands of enslaved women and men lost their lives, tears apart the blinders and boundaries between past and present, metropole and colony. Insisting on the presence of the past, the protests reveal Europe’s romance with itself, unmasking its political and economic achievements as the product of enslavement and colonial exploitation.

This historical reckoning is only the first step. Acknowledging that colonial history shapes the current inequalities and hierarchies that structure the world sets the stage for the next one: reparations and restitution.

Reparations is not a single act. The Caribbean Community has already demanded reparations for slavery and Indigenous genocide from Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Although there is little movement at the level of states, the University of Glasgow agreed last year to pay 20 million pounds (about $25 million) for development research with the University of the West Indies in recognition of how the university benefited from the profits of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The Herero of Namibia, who suffered the 20th century’s first genocide at the hands of Germany, have also called for redress. Their efforts follow the successful bid for reparations by the Mau Mau of Kenya, many of whom were tortured during Britain’s brutal suppression of their independence movement in the mid-20th century. In other contexts, activists have focused on the return of the looted artifacts that fill Europe’s great museums. France, for instance, has committed to returning 26 stolen artworks to Benin.

But reparations should not focus only on the former colonies and their relations with European states. Colonialism lives on inside Europe’s borders, and Europe itself must be decolonized. Black Europeans experience discrimination in employment and education, are racially profiled and are subject to racist violence at the hands of the police and fellow citizens.

The European Union recently avowed that “Black lives matter,” but its policies deprive Black people of equal rights, imprison them in camps and drown them in the Mediterranean. Overseas imperialism was once believed to be a political necessity for European states; today, anti-immigrant politics plays the same role. In either case, European policymakers disavow responsibility for the misery they bring about.

Repair and redress is owed as much to Black Europeans as it is to former colonial states. It would mean treating Black Europeans, and all migrants from the colonized world, as equal participants in European society. And this form of reparation cannot be perceived as one-off transactions. Instead, it must be the basis of building an inclusive and egalitarian Europe.

This is no easy task and will not happen overnight. But we should remember that just 80 years ago, colonial rule appeared to be a stable and almost permanent feature of international politics. In just three decades, anticolonial nationalists had transformed the world’s map.

The struggle for racial equality in Europe is a fight for a truly postcolonial condition, and its creation is implied by each dethroned statue. If colonialism made the modern world, decolonization cannot be complete until the world — including Europe — is remade.

The Economy Is A Mess. So Why Isn’t The Stock Market?

We’ve said it before: The stock market is not the economy.

Usually, this simply means that fluctuations in the markets may have little to no real bearing on the underlying realities we think of as making up the economy. Or that there are many important structural factors that make the markets’ outlook different from how ordinary citizens view the country’s overall economic health.

But now, those usual bromides risk wildly understating the disconnect. In the time of COVID-19, the stock market couldn’t be more divorced from the United States’ broader economic situation. Although the S&P 500 tumbled sharply in March, as the coronavirus shut down large swaths of the economy, it had made back almost all of its losses by the first week of June — before dipping again and then quickly rebounding yet again.

Even beyond the markets, there has been some data to suggest that the worst fears about the economy in late March and April were too pessimistic. (Take May’s jobs report, for instance, which showed a surprising decline in unemployment even after accounting for a classification problem with laid-off workers.) But the overall state of unemployment is still quite bad by historical standards, which mirrors numerous important economic indicators that are almost uniformly down — to a significant degree — from last summer:

Obviously, not every core indicator has dropped off a cliff in the face of this recession. Inflation, as measured by the sticky-price consumer price index (excluding ever-volatile food and energy expenditures), has dipped some since February — from 2.8 percent year-over-year to 2.1 percent — but remains in a relatively normal range. New building permits (a sign of construction investment and activity) have rebounded from an initial dip and are almost back at last year’s level. And measures of credit risk, such as the TED spread, have stabilized, indicating a low implied risk of commercial-bank defaults.

But employment ratesoil pricesconsumer confidence and many other measures paint a clear recessionary picture. Even corporate earnings — which in theory help dictate the prices of shares on the market — suffered their worst quarter since 2008. (This is what has driven forward-looking price-earnings ratio forecasts for the S&P skyward.)

And yet stock indices continue to rebound much faster than the rest of the economy.

Why? As is usually the case in economics, it’s complicated — and everyone has a pet theory. A few include the idea that investors are betting on a quick “V-shaped” recovery (rather than the longer, slower “swoosh” shape many economists have predicted) and banking on corporate profits eventually rebounding in the medium and long run. (And why not? The Federal Reserve’s actions have made it clear this is a priority.)

Some prominent tech companies at the top of the market (such as Microsoft, Apple and Alphabet) actually have reason to think the pandemic could shift business in their favor, with so much emphasis placed on digital shopping, communication and entertainment. And the rise of algorithm-based trading has insulated markets somewhat from the shocks that could be created by big news events, such as political developments or the protests against racial injustice currently sweeping across the country, since dispassionate algorithms don’t get worried or scared by the news the way humans do.

But Tara Sinclair, an economics professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Indeed Hiring Lab, told me she thinks the markets are also providing a better place for wealthy people to stash their money than alternatives like bonds or banks.

“People, particularly the rich, have cut back their spending, so they need to park their funds somewhere like the stock market (especially since interest rates are rock bottom),” she said in an email. “Inequality can mean that even with millions out of work, there might still be a glut of funds from the high-earning and/or high-wealth individuals.”

As Paul Krugman of The New York Times pointed out relatively early in the crisis, the yield on Treasury bonds is so low (see the chart above) that stocks are an attractive option — even in the midst of a recession caused by a once-in-a-generation pandemic.

“Recent stock market performance could be more about something like a savings glut rather than optimism on the future value of companies,” Sinclair told me. “It may be more about the S&P 500 being better than anywhere else to put funds rather than about actual optimism.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no optimism driving investors’ actions, though. “Maybe (hopefully?) people are investing for the longer term and are viewing the current economic situation as substantially temporary,” Sinclair wrote.

And it’s worth noting that, despite everything, the markets are not totally separate from the virus that continues to afflict every corner of the world.

When news of the coronavirus first hit, the VIX — a measure of market volatility perhaps better known as the “fear index” — spiked to 82.7, its highest level ever. (The previous high was 80.9, which it hit in November 2008, when the Great Recession sparked a massive selloff.) News of a COVID-19 resurgence earlier this month caused the VIX to surge to 40.8, another abnormally high number — outside of recessions, the VIX usually floats between 10 and 20. Despite the rising indices, uncertainty rules the stock market right now.

What that means down the line is anybody’s guess. But for now, Wall Street has shown a shocking amount of resilience even as almost every other economic indicator has tanked. If nothing else, let this be the final confirmation that, once and for all, the stock market is not the economy.

The Bizarre Economics of Tax Havens and Pirate Banking: James S. Henry at TEDxRadboudU 2013

James S. Henry introduces a hot topic: offshore banking. The G8 and G20 are planning meetings to discuss it. Even the Netherlands is a tax haven for certain types of companies. The huge amount of numbers and graphs tells us that we are confronted with nothing less than a global tax haven industry. For example, Apple makes 100 billion dollars a year of tax free profits because of the games private bankers know how to play.

In medieval times people couldn’t hide their wealth when tax collectors came to inventory it. Nowadays they can. It is said that 64 percent of the global profits are parked offshore, for an important part by multinationals from the first world.

The third world is the victim of this practise. An example from the banana industry: exporting a banana from the Cayman Islands costs 13 pence. When it arrives in the UK to be consumed, the costs have grown to 60 pence. All of this money goes to other parties than the Cayman Islands.

Because of the tax havens, countries from the Third World are not able to receive the tax incomes they are entitled to. Henry even concludes that the debt problem of the third world is not a debt problem, but a tax problem. Both amount to almost the same.

About TEDx
In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)