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OP-ED: To infinity and beyond

  • Published at 08:13 am August 10th, 2021
space race

Has the initial reaction to the billionaire space race been too critical?

Much of the media reaction to billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson flying to space has been critical, focusing on the alleged repugnance of such “frivolous” spending during an unprecedented economic crisis. 

However, the moral arguments don’t hold water, and we should celebrate these achievements rather than admonish those responsible.

The basic anti-billionaire argument has three elements.

First, a lot of those billions are ill-gotten and reflect exploitative and immoral acts, an accusation that is frequently leveled at Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Second, from the cleanly acquired wealth, these billions largely reflect good fortune. As such, it becomes the moral responsibility of those billionaires to use their money to decrease inequality, for example via poverty relief programs.

Third, if they must spend the money on themselves, they should at least do so discreetly, rather than making such a spectacle of their lavish outlays.

Upon closer inspection, these seducing arguments are not as convincing.

The essential reason for the success of Amazon, Tesla, and Virgin is the service they provide, accompanied by greater public demand. Moreover, they are not monopolies that exploit their market power -- all operate in very competitive markets, and the point at which they start providing a bad service is the minute they will start losing customers.

Compare that to 1990s Microsoft or to one of the local telecommunications monopolies we used to have to suffer. In both cases, no matter how bad the product on offer, you had no choice but to keep buying.

Bezos and his fellow billionaires certainly merit criticism: They bend the rules and exploit flaws in the government to squeeze out more dollars. However, they are more successful than the next businessperson, not because they are less ethical, but because they are smarter and better at delivering a service that people want.

How much responsibility the rich have to help the poor is a timeless question, and the easy option for any non-billionaire is to always demand more, especially when the alternative appears self-indulgent.

However, the reality is that the same criticism can be leveled at most of what we buy every day. Is that Starbucks coffee really necessary? How about the iPhone, the Netflix subscription?

While a middle-class American perceives most of a billionaire’s spending as frivolous, a poor American thinks the same of a middle-class American. Moreover, an American from the 19th century would regard virtually everything a 21st century American spends their money on as self-indulgent.

The reality is that what you like to think of as an objective definition of “frivolous” frequently translates into what someone richer than you buys, and doesn’t include what you buy. Therefore, conveniently enough, it is always people who are richer than you who need to spend more on charity, while you don’t need to change anything.

We have tax systems to determine fair shares, and as long as there is no illegal tax evasion, how these billionaires spend their money is their choice. If there are loopholes being exploited, then those loopholes should be closed.

People also need to have realistic expectations: The many billionaires who don’t fly space rockets doesn’t mean they are spending that money on poverty relief -- they are just spending it on themselves more discreetly, such as by purchasing art, mansions, and private airplanes.

Since these lower profile billionaires escape social admonishment, pressuring Bezos via the media will simply result in a different type of selfish expenditure, rather than a switch to virtuous projects.

To me, spending on space travel is inspirational rather than shameful gloating. I am no physicist, but these billionaires are contributing to massive decreases in the cost of flying into space.

One day, this might lead to the path to a new resource, or to solutions to problems such as climate change or overpopulation. It may be a long shot, but I’m glad someone is taking it, rather than a Van Gogh changing hands, or a custom diamond-studded Mercedes being assembled.

Omar Al-Ubaydli is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain. He tweets @omareconomics. This article first appeared in AlArabiya News and has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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