Being the Richest Man in the World Is a Drag

At least if you’re Jeff Bezos—and politicians are beginning to accuse you of running a monopoly.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, briefly the richest man in the world, on July 13 in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

For a brief stretch on Thursday, Jeff Bezos was the richest man in the world.

News broke that that the Amazon CEO’s wealth had outstripped that of Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, after a momentary surge in Amazon’s stock pushed Bezos’ wealth to $90.6 billion, surpassing Gates by $500 million, according to Forbes’ real-time ranking of billionaires. But Bezos didn’t hold the crown for long. By 1:30 p.m., Amazon’s stock dropped 2 percent from its morning high, and Gates’ title was restored.

That actually should have left Bezos breathing a sigh of relief.

Right now, Amazon is beginning to face more scrutiny over its massive scale and dominance in retail. Bezos—who also owns the space-rocket company Blue Origin and the Washington Post—may have a strong case that Amazon is not a monopoly in the many sectors in which it competes. (Among those sectors is groceries, particularly following Amazon’s recent announcement of plans to acquire Whole Foods for $14 billion.) But being richer than even Gates makes that argument at least a teensy bit harder.

The pressure is coming from both sides.

“He thinks I’ll go after him for antitrust,” then-candidate Donald Trump said of Bezos in an interview with Sean Hannity in May 2016. “Because he’s got a huge antitrust problem because he’s controlling so much, Amazon is controlling so much of what they are doing.” Trump has repeatedly, and without basis, implied or outright charged that Bezos is using the Washington Post to give Amazon political cover to avoid paying more taxes.

On the left, meanwhile, Democrats have renewed their fervor for antitrust—with an eye toward the technology industry in particular.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said he wants to rally his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus to look into whether Amazon’s plan to buy Whole Foods could hurt consumers. “I worry about grocery consolidation, I worry about the jobs that many of these grocery stores create, and so I am skeptical of this particular merger, highly skeptical of it,” Booker said on a recent interview on the Recode Decode podcast. “And I believe this consolidation as well as other consolidations, we should be holding a far higher bar than we are when we approve these.” Booker also raised concerns over Google’s scale and influence.

Another Democrat, Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, wrote a letter to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month to call for hearings on Amazon and Whole Food’s proposed merger.

The lawmakers have a point. Fifty percent of U.S. households are Amazon Prime members, according to a recent study by Piper Jaffray. Bezos’ businesses now directly compete with Netflix as well as Walmart, Blue Apron, Kroger, SpaceX, the New York Times, and every bookstore in America, as do countless sellers on its marketplace. Amazon’s own line of affordable products, Amazon Basics, are selling particularly well. Basics now make up almost a third of all online battery sales and around 15 percent of online baby wipes sales. Now, it’s possible none of this would rate as an antitrust violation as the law is typically interpreted these days. But there are certainly cases to be made.

So, yeah, Bezos was probably happy to end his brief stay at the top. The last thing he likely wants is for even more lawmakers to question his company’s dominance. He certainly doesn’t want them to have a talking point that practically writes itself.

Besides, Bezos has other things to do, like lifting weights, building rocket ships, or whatever else someone with more than $88.7 billion does in his free time.