Rockets and rich guys

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, July 20, 2021, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

There has been a lot of backlash directed at Jeff Bezos, the Amazon and Blue Origin guy, and Richard Branson, the Virgin guy, after both of them made private voyages to the edge of space with other passengers, largely as a tourism endeavor. For some reason, Elon Musk gets tossed in there as well, even though he's not getting into rockets, and SpaceX is mostly ferrying satellites and cargo for governments and private industry. There's a lot of hostility.

Certainly some of this is the optics. It doesn't help that Bezos, in a fit of cosmic stupidity, wearing a cowboy hat, thanked Amazon customers and workers for making his flight happen. That's not a great thing to say when your workforce is dealing with a fairly brutal working environment. Branson doesn't get a lot of love either. I think the controversy, if you can call it that, comes down to two topics: Wealth inequality and dedication of resources to solving problems.

Let's start with the wealth inequality. One of the problems with this as a broad topic is that the spectrum of wealth is treated as a binary or zero-sum situation, that there can only be wealthy people at the expense of poor people. In a democratic and capitalist society, the issue is that there is a floor to wealth, not having any, but no ceiling at the other end. There are hundreds of institutional norms and policies that have continued to slant the inability of people to ascend from poverty, but the existence of the rich guy isn't itself the reason for this necessarily. He's more the outcome than the cause. You should be pissed that Bezos pays so little in taxes, but fixing that requires change in policy. Hating on him or people like him doesn't change anything. As much as I align with a lot of the social causes of progressives, this is an area where I struggle to connect. Bernie is always there to incite rage toward the Bezos archetype, when he should be concentrating on the loopholes that prevent them from proportionately contributing to society the way the rest of us have to. Let's treat the causes of the inequality disease, not the symptoms like billionaires building rockets.

As for dedicating to resources solving problems, private industry is getting the same negative attention that the feds endured during the Apollo era. The scientific value of space travel is high even when it appears to be for the sake of space tourism. What we're really talking about is advancing technology. When Musk says he wants to make humans an interplanetary species, that we need a backup plan because of what we're doing to Earth, I don't question his sincerity. His company has been mercilessly focused on reducing the cost of spaceflight in order to make that happen, and if that means a tourist trip, so be it. Remember, early automobiles were the exclusive domain of the rich as well. Home computers and cellular phones were, too, and now everyone has them (as the same device, no less). Should the technologists of those times not tried to solve those problems?

Of course not, because the reality is that we as a society can do more than one thing at a time. That was true of government in the Apollo era, and it's true now for private individuals. If we're to criticize Bezos and Branson, then criticize them for not doing more philanthropic work or funding research for those causes, but not for building rockets.

Indeed, we often have to figure out what our moral expectations are. Bill Gates has dedicated his fortune to solving public health problems, even focusing on eradicating polio. How much is enough? Should he give up his mansion on Lake Washington to help solve that problem? We can apply the same question to normal people like us... Should we not vacation because we should spend that money to feed the hungry in our communities? The answer, of course, is that it's not a binary choice.

Admittedly, some of this distaste for Bezos feels justified. I cringe when I hear him talk, and I despise the way people are treated in his distribution centers. But if I try to separate the person from this idea of commoditizing space travel, I think it's a worthwhile endeavor, and not mutually exclusive to lifting people out of poverty or preventing disease or any similarly worthy and moral effort.


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