Elisabeth Braw June 27
By Elisabeth Braw, a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Dear Jeff Bezos,
I know these are troubling times for you and the 2,667 other members of the world’s billionaire club. According to Forbes, there used to be 2,755 of you, but the world’s current turbulence has relegated 87 of you to the mere ranks of multimillionaires and shaved your collective worth by $400 billion, to $12.7 trillion. Then again, you and your fellow billionaires did spectacularly well during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. You and the other nine men who are the world’s richest people more than doubled your wealth, and the billionaire club gained another member every 26 hours.
And you in particular, Mr. Bezos, are having some highly annoying logistical problems—ironically so, considering that you made your $171 billion fortune in the logistics business. The $500 million yacht you’re building in the Netherlands is, the Financial Times reports, so tall that it won’t fit under Rotterdam’s Koningshaven Bridge, or “De Hef,” as locals call it, once it emerges from its Dutch shipyard. Perhaps the Dutch shipbuilder forgot that vessels with 230-foot masts don’t fit under most bridges, or perhaps everyone assumed that Rotterdam’s authorities would simply agree to the demand the shipbuilder is now making to temporarily dismantle the 95-year-old De Hef so your yacht can sail through.
City officials, the Times reports, may agree to dismantle the bridge a few times a year for ships such as yours—for a modest fee of 100,000 euros. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t a popular idea with locals. “Are we going to bow our heads for Jeff Bezos just to give him his pleasure boat?” Paul van de Laar, the head of the history department at Erasmus University Rotterdam, asked the Times. “Is this city built to make sure that the billionaires can have a good time?”
But your problems are bigger than that. All is not well with the world, and that kind of problem might knock a few digits off your $171 billion and perhaps relegate some of your fellow billionaires out of the three-comma club entirely—a hard blow for anyone. You are, I know, already aware of our climate change emergency.
But even more immediate is the world’s looming economic crisis. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is causing food prices to rise, and energy prices are rising for the same reason. In June, key stock exchanges plunged by 2 percent or more, and Wall Street registered its worst week in months. Economists, policymakers, and industrialists are warning of a recession. Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman has calculated the odds that the United States will fall into recession to be 50-50.
Climate crises and the resulting global instability will harm your wealth. The stumbling global economy already is. And while combating climate change will require all of us to make changes—likely drastic ones—to our lifestyles, there’s a relatively easy answer to the economic downturn. With Russia’s war against Ukraine a primary reason for this calamitous turn, all the world needs to do to avert a serious downturn is help the Ukrainians defeat their Russian invaders. The problem is not the Ukrainians’ lack of desire to do so—it’s their lack of weapons.
That’s where you and the other 2,667 billionaires can come in. Many Western governments are already doing their best to help. The U.S. government has allocated more than $25 billionin military aid to Ukraine. The U.K. government has allocated some $2.5 billion and Germany and Poland more than $1 billion each. And that’s just the weapons: Western governments—among which I count Australia—have also pledged and delivered all manner of other assistance to Ukraine. Some 6.5 million Ukrainians have fled to Poland and other neighboring countries.
All this is putting enormous burden on Western—especially European—governments, and these governments also have to support their own citizens, who are now struggling with galloping prices for food and energy. I’m not even going to mention the migration crisis that the global food crisis could trigger—because this crisis, as you well know, will hit African and Middle Eastern countries even harder than European ones.
As you well know, Western governments could try to solve their financial crunch by raising taxes on the wealthiest among us—a step I know most in your illustrious group would not welcome. But if Ukraine doesn’t get more weapons soon, the war will drag on for a very long time. Indeed, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said this month that it could last for years. I know your illustrious group wouldn’t welcome such a future either, especially since it’s certain to further worsen the global economic downturn.
So, Mr. Bezos and the other masters of the universe, here’s my straightforward proposition to you: Team up among yourself—two, three, four, or more perhaps—and buy the Ukrainians the weapons they need. With even a portion of your combined wealth of $12.7 trillion, you’ll effortlessly outspend Russia. Ukraine will, of course, continue to provide the manpower.
Before you protest, saying that ordinary civilians can’t buy weapons for countries’ armed forces: It’s already being done. Generous Czechs have, to date, raised more than $53 million for weapons for Ukraine, and their government has organized the delivery of the howitzers and other weapons this money has bought. Last month, Lithuanians raised the more than $5 million needed for an armed drone, which the Ukrainians are now using.
These are just ordinary Czechs and Lithuanians. Imagine what you, what with your wealth, your connections, and your power to persuade your fellow titans of industry, could achieve. Yes, the world’s weapons-makers are extremely busy at the moment. As I mentioned, all is not well with the world. But the Ukrainians need all manner of weaponry, beginning with a desperate need for ammunition. Not only are they using a lot of it in their desperate fight to defend their country—for precisely this reason, Russia is putting heavy pressure on Central and Eastern European countries that have the Soviet-era ammunition Kyiv needs to make sure the Ukrainians don’t receive it. Because Western weapons use different-sized ammunition, Western capitals are of little use in getting the right ammo to Ukraine.
But correct-sized ammo could be manufactured again.
Hint: Just as factories—during the pandemic’s worst months—switched production from whatever they were manufacturing to personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, factories could now switch production to ammunition. The switch just needs to make financial sense. That is, companies need to be paid well in order to make the switch. That’s where you come in. Imagine being able to tell your grandchildren that you decided against buying a $500 million yacht (and paying for a bridge to be dismantled to get it to the ocean) or a garage full of vintage cars, and instead spent that small part of your fortune on helping to achieve peace in the world. Your grandchildren would be proud of you.
No, you won’t be able to do this on your own. As with all arms trades, governments will need to approve the sale and delivery of the weapons to Ukraine. But if ordinary Czechs and Lithuanians can get such government approval, so can you.
And, yes, the members of your group hail from many different nations, some of them far from Ukraine. Some of them might want to keep doing business with Russia. That’s not a great idea. But for your prosperity, all of you depend on the world functioning at least relatively well. Let me reveal an uncomfortable truth: If Ukraine fails to defeat Russia, other European countries will be next. If that happens, the world order on which your fortune depends will crumble.
And allow me to reveal another uncomfortable truth: Most people around the world don’t like you and your ilk very much. In fact, they consider you parasites, people who consistently minimize their tax burdens and leave the rest of us picking up the slack. (You and your fellow American billionaires will be familiar with recent U.S. government figures, which show that you pay an average income tax of 8.2 percent.) Spending some of your fortune on weapons for Ukraine would help improve your image. And it would help Ukraine defeat the Russian invaders and thereby get the global economy on an even keel. Did I mention that helping Ukraine is simply a good deed, a bit like what billionaires Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates have been doing for global health?
See, I knew you’d like my proposal. Now go and execute it.
Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw