Jeff Bezos is almost a double centi-billionaire; Bulgaria’s epic anti-corruption protests

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HEADS I WIN, TAILS I ALSO WIN

I often think the best way to approach important and emotion-heavy events is to put money on the side I want to lose, so I win either way. If Wales beats England, I’m happy; if England beats Wales, at least I’m in the money. In the days after the U.S. election, I was interested to see that, slightly improbably, the tech billionaires appear to have created a financial system that works in the same way.

Take Jeff Bezos: he was already the richest man in the world before the election, but he ended last week a cool $13.9 billion richer, with his personal net worth estimated by Forbes at $193.4 billion (item: do we need a new word for someone who owns $200 billion? Centi-billionaire seems so two years ago, all of a sudden). Mark Zuckerberg did well too, with a gain of $11 billion, putting him firmly into centi-billionaire territory; as did Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

So, how did they arrange this “heads, I win; tails, I win” strategy? Although Joe Biden took the White House, it looks like the Republicans may hang onto the Senate. House Democrats had been pushing hard for more regulatory oversight of the tech giants, and divided government makes that less likely. 

  • “Wall Street analysts expect that under a divided Congress, Big Tech is less likely to face heightened regulatory scrutiny,” Forbes noted.

Bezos did sell some of his personal Amazon shares a week ago, raising $3 billion, which he will spend on traveling into space, and on philanthropy, including on his network of schools, about which the noted pluto-sceptic Anand Giridhardas was more than usually caustic in a fifteen-point critique.

  • “Your concern for low-income children is admirable. One of the things low-income children tend to have in common is parents whose bosses PAY THEM TOO LITTLE. If that resonates,” was point fifteen, and the others are every bit as good.

Giridhardas has called philanthropy the new “opiate of the people”, since it is so good at projecting a benevolent image for rapacious businesspeople who do far more harm than good. 

  • “One could ask whether the givers were obliged not only to contribute to solutions but also to answer about their role in causing the problems,” he writes. In a post-Donald Trump world, it would be nice if that question could be asked more frequently.

Of course, the authorities are not just sitting around while all this goes on, which is a mercy. The U.S. Justice Department launched antitrust proceedings against Google last month, and the European Commission has just done the same against Amazon. According to the case, Amazon has been exploiting its knowledge of how rivals use its platform to trade, to benefit its own goods. It has been a huge year for Amazon, thanks to everyone shopping online during lockdowns, so the probe couldn’t be timelier. 

Still, it’s hard to believe the prospect of the probe will bother Bezos too much. Even if Amazon does lose, judging by the scale of previous fines against tech giants – eight billion euros from Google, 16 billion euros from Apple – he’d earn back the penalty in a week or two. After all, “punishable by fine” translates as “legal for rich people.”

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SORRY, BULGARIA

For most of the last three months I’ve been meaning to write about Bulgaria’s epic anti-corruption protests, which have brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets in Sofia (and other cities) day after day, but I kept running out of space. Then, last week, they stopped, owing to concern over a rising wave of Covid-19 infections after 116 consecutive days of action, and now I feel guilty about my failure to give them a shout-out.

  • “We must preserve the ability of Bulgarian doctors and nurses to deal with the wave of patients. We took this decision out of respect for our medics and paramedics,” the protest organizers said. 

The protests grew out of widespread public anger over mis-governance and dishonesty, which came to a head when an anti-corruption activist attempted to exercise his right to walk on a beach, but was pushed into the water by state security officers defending a politician’s seafront mansion.

The protesters demanded a radical overhaul of the way the EU country runs itself but failed to gain any concessions. They did win some sympathy from members of the European Parliament, and criticism of the government from the European Commission, which intensified after dozens of people were injured and arrested in clashes between protesters and riot police. But the pressure never amounted to much, perhaps because Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s party is part of the same centre-right grouping as Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats.

The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs passed a resolution expressing its “unequivocal support” for the protesters. But the resolution barely squeaked through the voting process, which makes the support from MEPs look rather more equivocal than was presumably intended. Now the protests have died away, it is hard to see how the organizers will regain momentum once more.

Fighting corruption is hard, particularly when the corrupt officials retain power.

UKRAINE AGAIN

On that note, the news remains grim in Kyiv, where President Volodymyr Zelensky has tested positive for Covid-19, as has his chief of staff. There has been no progress on the country’s constitutional crisis, which has pitted Zelensky against the constitutional court over the imposition of anti-corruption measures.

The National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), which is in a feud of its own with a different court, said judges were grievously undermining attempts to bring the dishonest to justice.

  • “Due to these rulings, the opportunity to recover billions of losses caused by corruption is lost forever,” NABU said in a statement. “Indeed, in the current conditions, there is a risk that the Constitutional Court of Ukraine can destroy any other anti-corruption body through the adoption of political decisions.”

However, the news from Washington suddenly looks more hopeful. Most experts in Ukraine feel that a Biden presidency will mean more stability in the crucial relationship with the United States. And it could even help break the deadlock currently blocking any significant reforms.

  • “The eleven Ukrainian constitutional court judges implicated in attempts to derail anti-corruption efforts had better reconsider. They might otherwise find themselves becoming subject to US sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes,” said Anders Asland, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a leading expert on Ukrainian politics.

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WHAT I’VE BEEN WATCHING

Like pretty much everyone else in the world, I’ve been fixated by the news out of the United States, and the Trump team’s increasingly undignified attempts to cling onto the presidency. After a couple of days, I realized that the whole set-up was increasingly coming to resemble a scene in the British original version of the TV comedy show The Office, when David Brent and Chris Finch lose in the final round of a pub quiz and struggle to accept the legitimacy of the result.

Eventually, Finch seeks to regain his self-respect by stealing a shoe off a member of the winning team and showing everyone how far he can throw it. I am a little concerned about what the presidential equivalent of throwing a shoe over a pub might be for Donald Trump over the next few weeks, and I’m pretty sure I won’t like it.

See you next Wednesday,

Oliver

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Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough is an author and journalist from Wales, who specializes in writing about financial crime, often when it has links to the former Soviet Union. His most recent book is Moneyland, why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back, and he is currently trying to write another one despite lockdown.