The Branson, Bezos Question: Are We OK With Billionaires Sending Big Bucks Into Space?

Issue 173 — July 26, 2021

Two billionaires went into space last week and created a big dust up here on Earth. The debates over whether Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos did something amazing or disgusting raged on social media.

Bezos was knocked more vigorously than Branson. Perhaps this is because Branson is more likable and, by being visibly charitable in the past, has inoculated himself against those who argue that these wealthy men have no heart for those suffering and in need of their help here on Earth.

Bezos compounded the acrimony directed at him by thanking his employees for making his flight possible. Yet many Amazon employees are among those in need, breaking their backs in physically demanding jobs while struggling to get by on $15 per hour.

It didn’t help that while Branson went to the edge of space in something that looked like an airplane, Bezos’s rocket was phallic in shape, spawning predictable jokes. We all know men whose (you name it) has to be bigger than the other guy’s.

And then Bezos compounded it again in response to being criticized for his lack of charitable giving — especially when compared to his ex-wife MacKenzie Scott’s egoless donations to hundreds of deserving organizations. He made a big public to-do over giving $100,000,000 each to political activist Van Jones (“What, why?” asked many) and big-hearted Chef Jose Andres’s World Central Kitchen, whose good works feeding people during natural disasters and the pandemic are truly Nobel Prize worthy.

The nonprofit poverty-fighting organization Oxfam slammed Bezos, calling his space trip “Human folly, not human achievement” for ignoring what those millions expended could have done for people suffering here on Earth.

Bezos’ assertion that we would save the planet by sending our polluting industry into space caused many to think the man either has a tin ear or lacks staff who can steer him appropriately. People rightly asked, why don’t we just clean up this planet for a lot less money?

It’s an obvious contrast to observe what the millions that went into Bezos’ and Branson’s privately funded space flights and those of Elon Musk’s SpaceX could have done to clean up the polluters, create clean technologies, educate, feed, and house those crushed by an economy that left them behind and most vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19.

And writing in Intercept, Naomi Klein points out another aspect of the rich versus poor divide:

It comes back to those stories so many of us in the rich world have been telling ourselves about our relative safety. That when the climate crisis hit, it would be others (read: Black, brown, Indigenous, foreign) who would bear the risks. And if that turned out to be a bad bet, and the crisis came to our communities, then we would simply move somewhere more protected. To Oregon or British Columbia or the Great Lakes or maybe, if things get really dire, Alaska or the Yukon…As water scientist Peter Gleick recently wrote, we are seeing the emergence of “two classes of refugees: those with the freedom and financial resources to try, for a while at least, to flee from growing threats in advance, and those who will be left behind to suffer the consequences in the form of illness, death and destruction.”

There is a strong argument that individuals have a right to spend the money they have earned as they wish.

But to me, the more compelling point on that side of the divide is that every great achievement has been considered folly at first. If the Wright brothers hadn’t expended what at that time was large sums trying to fly, I wouldn’t be writing this article while aloft en route across the United States in a mere few hours’ time. It always takes big, bold, visionary thinking and the willingness to put resources behind it to create the advances that do make life better for those who have access to them.

So I don’t mind millionaires and billionaires, and I have a negative reaction when Bernie Sanders refers to the “billionaire class” as a disparaging label. But I do care what billionaires do with their money. I care what they do with the privilege it brings to them. I care whether they pay their fair share of taxes so that our cities, states, and nation can provide the necessary infrastructure of civilization to all: safety, security, healthcare, education, roads and bridges that don’t crumble, clean water and air, for example.

Money, after all, is like power. It has no distinguishing characteristics of its own. It becomes whatever we make of it for good or ill.

Robin Montegari commented on Facebook in Take The Lead’s 9 Leadership Powr Tools for Women Leaders group that while she might not like how powerful people spend their money, she does believe it’s up to them to do what they want with theirs and is “eternally optimistic that when they truly know better (when they “see the light”), they will choose to do better.” She continues, “I try not to focus on those who are self-serving (what power do I have over that anyway?) and instead focus on those men and women who do, do better and use them as models of how I can also improve our world (regardless of my level of income, influence, reach or power).”

As my grandmother used to say, “Charity begins at home.”

If you agree, I invite you to do great good while enjoying a phenomenal live-at-home concert featuring the award winning composer and pianist Marina Arsenijevic on August 26, Women’s Equality Day at 7pm eastern. Proceeds will #putwomenatthecenter of the recovery from the pandemic, enabling Take The Lead to provide training and coaching to the millions of women whose lives and livelihoods have been disrupted, so they can develop their talents and make the world a better, healthier, more prosperous place for all of us.

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.

Gloria Feldt is a New York Times bestselling author and co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a nonprofit women’s leadership organization.