“Let’s guilt Branson, Bezos and space tourists into making charitable donations before they leave Earth.”
That was the headline of a recent column by Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune. In the piece, he sets forth a popular perspective: as the uber-wealthy Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson spend gobs of money on space travel, they should correspondingly increase their philanthropy for folks here on Earth.
Here’s one Rex-cerpt:
“I know many folks wealthy enough to build spacecrafts or buy tickets to ride them already do good things with their money. But if they’re doing good things with their money and still have enough to build spacecrafts or buy tickets to space, they can surely afford to do a little more.”
I frequently enjoy Huppke’s writing, characterized by liberal, self-effacing sprinklings of humor. Take, for example, this column on the more than quarter-million dollars that he helped raise to combat food insecurity this past holiday season.
There is no questioning Huppke’s earnestness for those less fortunate, and I don’t dispute the vast needs of struggling and suffering people here on Earth. But his column advising Branson and Bezos on how to spend their money shortchanges two realities:
First, very wealthy individuals already do plenty of philanthropic work, and the argument can always be made that each can, and should, “do a little more.”
And, second: the money that these billionaires spend in reaching the stars doesn’t just go into some black hole. It’s not as if nobody benefits from that spending. In fact, those dollars go directly toward the salaries of huge teams making all the space exploration happen. The money also goes toward materials and services that, either directly or indirectly, support countless households.
From there, all that money circulates into the economy, supporting other businesses and the people who are employed by those businesses, and onward it goes—like it does for any industry.
Results From My LinkedIn Poll
A week ago, on the heels of Bezos’s brief foray to the heavens in Blue Origin’s New Shepard—which came nine days after Branson’s maiden journey on Virgin Galactic—I created a poll via my LinkedIn account. Here was the question:
It’s a complex issue for many, but what most closely aligns with your overriding view of the recent “space wars” among multi-billionaires?
I crafted three options for answers. Here they are, with the percentage of respondents for each answer noted in parentheses:
Let’s focus on Earth’s issues (37%)
Sky’s limit on potential good (21%)
Their money, their choice (42%)
Where I Stand
Clearly, there is no universal vantage point on this question. My answer to it: “their money, their choice,” or the middle-ground position. I see these “space wars” neither as frivolous as critics would contend, nor as grounded in the level of pragmatic investment that I would engage in, if I had the resources.
And make no doubt, that “if” is the philosophical elephant that permeates this entire debate’s intergalactic room.
Surely at one point or another, we have all declared, “If I had that much money, let me tell you, this is what I would do…” Indeed, that’s just what Huppke did—and let’s remember, he got paid for it, too. My compensation for this blog post: zilch. Does that make my writing more noble than his column? (That’s a rhetorical question…I think.)
Regardless of whether one shares Huppke’s perspective, at least he sparks an intriguing thought exercise about what any one of us would do if we were in these billionaires’ shoes. It’s important to recognize, however, that baked into the exercise is this undeniable reality: it really can be so much easier to virtue-donate other people’s money than to donate one’s own.