This month my news feeds were dominated by two billionaires taking tourist trips to space in a game of one-upmanship that hasn’t been seen since the Industrial Revolution of the last century. Carnegie and Rockefeller, or Bezos and Branson, the competition is the same.
Anything you can do, I can do better.
But unlike Carnegie, who spent a large amount of his steel fortune building libraries in underserved communities, Bezos and Branson chose to use their wealth for ego trips to space.
That’s nice. I guess.
For all mankind
Look, I love space. I’ve been a casual NASA nerd since fourth grade. Every day I walked into school past a portrait of a neighbor and school alumnus who was an astronaut.
I cry every time Apollo 13 lands safely, and Tom Hanks gives the thumbs up.
The past 60-some years of NASA exploration gave us computers that fit in our palms and GPS-guided farm equipment. They allow us to be more efficient than our most detail-obsessed grandfather could have ever dreamed.
NASA is an example, in my opinion, of putting public dollars to work for the advancement of the public good.
For one man
Now, some will argue that that’s what Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson were doing — just using their private dollars to push us forward. And maybe time will prove that right.
But, who stands to financially benefit from that possible future advancement? It’s not the entire public. It’s going to be the billionaires who put their money down and expect a return on their investment.
Which brings me to a personal crossroads, and maybe you’re there, too.
I want to be cheering private space exploration, but I just can’t. Because I fear the advancements that are going to come out of that aren’t going to be for all mankind. They’re only going to be for the mankind that can afford them.
And yet all of us are going to pay the price, one way or another.
As one of my friends, Brandi Buzzard, pointed out in her Buzzard's Beat blog post “Dear Richard Branson: What's worse, a Rocket or a Steak?,” it takes an awful lot of rocket fuel and greenhouse gas emissions for a 10-minute trip to space. Hypocritically, both Branson — founder of the Virgin Group of media and travel companies — and Bezos, founder of Amazon, that global monopoly of shopping and entertainment — are on record as climate activists. Branson won’t eat beef because of his mistaken beliefs that cattle are the root cause of climate change, and not his jets and rockets. Bezos’s Amazon was the first signatory to The Climate Pledge, which advocates for the reduction of carbon emissions.
Both amassed their billions — Bezos is the richest man alive, with a net worth of more than $200 billion as of June — by selling the public goods and services, and keeping their labor costs low. That’s capitalism, and I can’t fault them for their innovative ways of beating their competition.
No, what galls me is that these modern industrial tycoons don’t have to work for the social license to operate like our farmers and ranchers do.
Social license to operate
Every day there’s some report or kerfuffle over how, and why, and where U.S. farmers and ranchers grow the crops and raise the livestock that feed our nation and the world.
We tell our producers that they must earn the public’s trust and that social license to operate. To use our finite environmental resources to feed and clothe that same public.
And yet, here we have two men who should have to justify their social license to operate, and the public just rolls over without pushback. In much of the breathless coverage of both of these “space flights,” very little was said about the public basically funding these ego trips with their Amazon clicks, low wages and global environmental resources.
Now, Bezos did thank his Amazon customers when he landed and tossed a few hundred million to charity. But $200 million is 0.1% of his fortune.
That’s like me buying a gumball.
Better billionaire race
Billionaire ego races aren’t new. As long as there have been tycoons, there have been grand projects, but they usually revolved around charity.
Andrew Carnegie put his name on libraries for underserved communities and made sure those buildings were architecturally beautiful. His legacy isn’t just in those structures, it’s also in the people who improved themselves by reading the books inside them.
John D. Rockefeller took his millions and put them into educational foundations for women and people of color, medical science research and public health.
Let’s face it, that was the least they could do in that time period, because their fortunes came at a high cost to labor and resources.
Yet today, we just let our tycoons off with a pass.
So, let’s take a look at just 10% of Bezos’s fortune, $20 billion. What could it do for America if we do some simple math?
He could wipe out the $1.728 billion in private student loan debt in this country and take a hefty bite out of the remaining $1.68 billion left over in total loan debt still on the books.
He could pay the annual list price of $56,000 for the Biogen Alzheimer drug for 357,142 patients. To that end, he could also pick up the $6,000 average yearly tab for insulin for 3 billion Americans without insurance.
He could clear the medical debt of millions of American families with a single check and still have plenty left over to live lavishly the rest of his days, and his children’s days, and his grandchildren’s days.
And yet, we have GoFundMe campaigns for cancer treatments for kids. We have genius minds locked in ALS purgatories because we can’t fund a cure.
We run and walk in 5Ks and write our own little checks to fund research for good causes, giving our own meager treasures to help our neighbors we see struggling, and say, “I’ve been given so much; I should share.”
Meanwhile, men with tax rates of 1.1% can’t be bothered to do more for others with what they’ve been given?
That is an astounding show of narcissism that galls this Kansan. Maybe, if we promised to name the cures after them, and erect giant statues to their honor, would we get more attention?
That’s a billionaire race that I would gladly cheer.