The Washington Post Sunday

Billionair­es are easy to hate, but they can fill voids


More than half a century ago, when the Apollo 11 astronauts took a giant leap for mankind and landed on the moon, my aunt, first cousin and I watched on a tiny tabletop TV — and wept. We were not alone in our emotional response to that earth-shattering event.

Recently, when two different billionair­es separately boarded and launched their own rockets and ventured into suborbital space, few tears were shed. The two spacemen were viewed with a mixture of passing curiosity and snarling resentment. Just who do Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Post and creator of Amazon, and Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder and chairman, think they are, anyway?

That seems to be the general consensus. Jacobin writer Luke Savage, well, savaged Bezos’s Blue Origin flight, which followed closely in the wake of Branson’s Virgin Galactic trip, calling it a “uniquely American disgrace.” Savage continued: “Only in a country whose ruling class has grown deeply deluded could a space joy ride like Jeff Bezos’s be seen as cause for public celebratio­n rather than the symptom of moral rot and institutio­nal decay that it so clearly is.”

Jacobin spends most of its time critiquing the ruling class, so Savage’s take wasn’t surprising. And if he made several valid points about Earth’s economic inequality and related pandemic death tolls, I’m not sure such concerns invalidate humankind’s timeless pursuit of discovery. But Bezos, whose curiosity is boundless, has become the person everyone loves to hate. Not only did he found Amazon, which nearly everyone reading this has helped enrich, but he’s building a yacht roughly the size of Rhode Island at the cost of about $500 million. Hate and envy are a matter of scale, it would seem.

I see Bezos and Branson as modern-day explorers in the vein of Lewis and Clark — only with better navigation­al instrument­s.

Some critiques have read like movie reviews. Will Feuer, a New York Post business writer, noted that the Bezos rocket didn’t go very high, the flight was short and the view from on board was less than amazing. The flight lasted only about 11 minutes and reached 66.5 miles in altitude, slightly higher than Branson. So maybe it wasn’t a moon landing, but it was something more than sitting in a sports bar cursing an athlete for a misplaced bet.

I suspect that Bezos and Branson, whom I’ve never met, think they’re spending their excess wealth on something visionary rather than merely self-indulgent. Only the exceedingl­y rich could aspire to such a venture, much less accomplish the mission. Moreover, billionair­es increasing­ly are filling voids that government­s alone can’t. From providing vaccines and maternity care to building housing and schools, philanthro­pists are too often the last best hope for many of the world’s neediest. Why shouldn’t they also pick up where NASA has left off ?

It was inevitable that private individual­s would step into NASA’s footsteps. But Bezos and Branson mostly have escaped applause beyond the media, for whom a rocket launch is a ratings booster, and politician­s who wouldn’t think of criticizin­g the richest potential donors in the world.

Democracy Now! — the angry debutante of the media’s far left — took Bezos to task for taking a ride while Earth is burning, the country is moving to tax the rich and while Amazon’s workers, whom Bezos thanked upon landing, are trying to unionize. Talk about a buzz killer.

All these claims may be hyperbolic­ally true — climate change is part of Bezos’s stated rationale for space exploratio­n — but liberals’ concerns with how other people spend their own money are a bit shopworn, wouldn’t you say? Instead of seeing Bezos and Branson as boys with extreme toys, I see them as modern-day explorers in the vein of Lewis and Clark — only with better navigation­al instrument­s.

Who cares if their maiden voyages were limited in scope? Baby steps usually precede giant ones. And where is it written, other than in Marxist manifestos, that the rich can’t spend as they please? And while I’d rather have a sturdy jon boat than a massive ark myself, I’m willing to test that assertion.

I generally prefer philanthro­pists who try to make life better for as many people as possible right here on Earth, including helping them become self-supporting capitalist­s. But my hunch is that they are on the right path. Maybe someday, Bezos and Branson will be heralded as 21stcentur­y heroes of a dying planet, whose early ventures gave wing to space travel and democratiz­ed survival.

As our distant-future progeny hop the last rockets to somewhere else, families won’t be watching on tiny TVs as we did in 1969, but the weeping for all we failed to protect when we had the chance will be deafening.

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