On April 24, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, gave a wide-ranging, 48-minute interview with German digital publisher Axel Springer. He talked about how big tech companies like Amazon ought to be scrutinized, solving transient homelessness, and the lessons he learned from his grandfather, who once pulled 10-year-old Bezos aside to dispense memorable coming-of-age wisdom — that “it’s harder to be kind than clever.” But what the Twittersphere latched onto, following the interview’s publication on Business Insider four days later on April 28, is the moment in which Bezos — now the richest person in the world, and the first person to be valued at a three-digit net worth in the billions — tells his audience how he intends to spend most of his wealth: “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.”
Were we watching a movie about an eccentric billionaire, his proclamation would seem hardly controversial. But since this is real life and the world is freighted with inequity, many on Twitter found his logic unconscionable. “[J]ust to get this straight,” tweeted editor and writer John Freeman on May 1, “the richest man on the planet, would rather go to space, to fucking space, then [sic] pay taxes so the government could feed the poor, take care of the elderly, heal veterans, and do all the things the federal government does…” Journalist David Sirota pointed out the irony of Bezos investing in space when “a sizable amount of Jeff Bezos’ workforce is paid so little that they need to rely on food stamps.” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof gamely suggested an alternative: “Or @JeffBezos could use his fortune to make primary education universal worldwide, singlehandedly ending global illiteracy, changing the world forever. Now that would be a moonshot!”
In invoking the moonshot, Kristof borrows a term from the tech industry, referring to big problems that would inspire radical but potentially feasible technological solutions — a term that is, in turn, inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s famous speeches to Congress and the American public in the early 1960s, marking the beginning of America’s space race against the Soviet Union. For Bezos — whose aerospace company Blue Origin, like fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX, aims to make spaceflight commercially viable through recyclable rockets — the moonshot is literal.
If tech billionaires like Bezos and Musk seem to be completely divorced from the realities on the ground, it’s because their wealth — at net worth $130.2 billion and $19.6 billion respectively — gives them the unfathomable freedom to think at a scale and timeframe that the rest of us cannot afford to. Bezos plans to continue liquidating roughly $1 billion a year of Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin because he predicts that humanity’s great flourishing will be inevitably stymied by an energy crisis in a few hundred years. Bezos predicts our descent into a “civilization of stasis” and believes it can be averted only by moving beyond our home planet. “The solar system can easily support a trillion humans,” reasons Bezos, “and if we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar power and so on. That's the world that I want my great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren to live in.”
Is there a place for the great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren of the poor and ordinary in this future universe? To say that tech billionaires like Bezos are apathetic to the problems of common folk because they're too rich, too insular, too selfish, too singularly interested in endeavors that turn a profit, or too eager to cement their personal legacy for human posterity, belies a much more practical calculus: Many, though not all, of the tech industry's elite would rather stay away from directly tackling poverty, or access to education and health care in their work, because these are messy, complex problems that cannot be fundamentally served by techno-utopian solutionism.
More pointedly, any kind of effective, lasting solution to these issues involves collaborating with government agencies and civil society — human bureaucracies often seen by the tech community as anathema to Silicon Valley’s religion for efficiency, agility, and risk-taking. (Consider this 2016 interview with then-president Obama at the tech conference South by Southwest Interactive, in which the interviewer questions how tech and government could plausibly reconcile with one another: “Government is big and bloated and slow and risk-averse, and it's run on outmoded systems and outmoded equipment. Tech is sleek and streamlined, and fail-fast and enamored of the new and the shiny. How do you take these two things that seem culturally to be so unlike and put them together in a way where they can and want to work together?”)
Projects like manned space travel or the hyperloop seem more attractive to Bezos and his tribe, in contrast, not only because they tap into the sense of expansive, imaginative possibility that drew preadolescent versions of these tech entrepreneurs to science in the first place, but also because they can be boiled down, for the most part, to a case of mind over matter — or more accurately, of engineering over physics. These are problems for which boundary conditions can be modeled, variables manipulated, and equations triumphantly optimized when you throw enough money and people at them.
There are counterexamples, of course, to this line of thinking. Bill Gates has famously pledged to give the majority of his wealth to philanthropy, and the Gates Foundation focuses on a range of projects, from malaria eradication to efforts to improve nutrition for women and children. Omidyar Network, founded by former eBay cofounder Pierre Omidyar, invests in a portfolio of startups and civil society organizations, whose work spans innovating K-12 school models to building tools for citizen participation; Omidyar also provided the funding to launch the investigative reporting site the Intercept. Similarly, Jeff Skoll, eBay’s first employee and president, created the Skoll Foundation to help social entrepreneurs, as well as the media company Participant Media, “dedicated to entertainment that inspires and compels social change.” Bezos, on his part, recently gave $33 million to a scholarship fund for DREAMers, and has not completely discounted the possibility of engaging in large-scale philanthropy, though it seems clear that his financial contributions there will always pale in comparison to his investment in space travel.
Viewed another way, the backlash against Bezos rehashes a long-standing debate about taxpayer dollars funding NASA and space exploration when so many problems on this planet — and this country — remain unsolved. (NASA’s budget for 2018 from federal funds, which amounts to $19.5 billion, is a mere 15% of Bezos’s net worth.) Some may also frame the outrage in terms of the public’s growing distrust of Big Tech and the obtuseness of its wealthy executives.
But when you get to the heart of it, the anger directed at Jeff Bezos feels like it comes from someplace deep, and foundational. It is part of our sudden awakening to the ludicrousness of one man unilaterally controlling a magnitude of wealth so stratospheric that it would, as the Guardian notes, cover Britain’s budget deficit twice over. It is the old, yet shocking, story of American capitalism and exceptionalism: that a particular, brilliant, 18-year-old, who once told the Miami Herald in 1982 that he wanted to “build space hotels, amusement parks, yachts and colonies for two or three million people orbiting around the Earth” while our home planet is restored to its ecological glory, would go on to acquire all this wealth 36 years later, and along with it the license to spend his days dreaming of space, while many other 18-year-olds across the United States with similar aspirations and no less grit would not. (Remember that there are others lurking in that secret pantheon of billionaires with far less socially inclusive plans to survive the apocalypse in luxury bunkers.) And ultimately, it is the story of our grudging complicity in their incredible wealth: After all, we are the ones funding their ambitions every time we make a purchase online — one toilet paper subscription at a time. ●
Jeff Bezos was 18 when he spoke to the Miami Herald in 1982. An earlier version of this story misstated his age.