Jeff Bezos has built himself a space rocket and it looks like a giant…well you can judge for yourself. Which raises the question: how to go about reporting on this? Is it AP style, do you think, to say the vessel will penetrate the upper atmosphere provided there aren’t any onboard system cock-ups? We can only hope for Bezos’s sake that the rocket isn’t like a typical Amazon product in that it’s smaller in real life than it appears in the picture.
Bezos himself will be onboard for the scant 11-minute flight (don’t even get me started), which has drawn the expected gallons of contempt and death wishes from Twitter. And right on cue, here come fellow billionaires Richard Branson and Elon Musk to congratulate Bezos, even as they maneuver behind the scenes to get their own rockets up first. This is the space race today, people. Once a competition to the cosmos between the United States and the Soviet Union, it’s now a frat contest between plutocrats to see who can blast their insecurities into sub-orbit first.
Still, perhaps we should be more grateful to our SPECTRE-cosplaying overlords. The United States hasn’t sent a man to the moon in 50 years, while Mars remains the province of our robots alone. NASA still does plenty of good work on space exploration, but a lot of the funds it receives these days go towards climate change research and other earthbound initiatives. With the government ceding the floor, why shouldn’t the private sector step in? And because liftoff is so expensive and risky, who else would dare to attempt it except a loopy tycoon who wants to nail a ‘GALT4EVA’ vanity plate to the capsule bumper?
For his part, Elon Musk has been working on his fabled SpaceX program since seemingly before the Big Bang, presumably because flight is the last remaining difference between himself and Peter Pan. And it’s here that the drama of the space race spills out onto terra forma. Earlier this year, NASA awarded a $2.9 billion contract to develop a lunar lander to SpaceX, rejecting a bid by Blue Origin, Bezos’s company. Bezos was reportedly furious and filed a complaint, while Musk — you have to like the guy — responded by making a dick joke on Twitter. Then Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, Blue Origin’s home state, got involved. She added an amendment to a bill that would essentially award another contract to Bezos to the tune of $10 billion.
Bezos had just pulled off the rent-seeking equivalent of whining to the league for a participation trophy. This is because, contra to the mystique they’ve promoted, he and Musk aren’t just scrappy sans-tie capitalists; they’re also princes of crony capitalism. Bezos does untold millions in business with the feds — and while he narrowly missed out last year on the most lucrative cloud computing contract in government history, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Musk, meanwhile, is an expert on finding creative ways to get the government to underwrite his costs, with SpaceX heavily subsidized.
So perhaps it’s inevitable that, as we learned via ProPublica earlier this month, neither man pays much in taxes. The trick — as also practiced by various other masters of the universe, including Warren Buffett and that nanny-state varmint Michael Bloomberg — is to make your money not through income but stock holdings, which can’t be taxed by the IRS until the stock is sold off. To that end, it doesn’t matter how high Congress cranks the upper tax rate (just as it didn’t matter during the 1950s when it stood at more than 90 percent, despite what progressives love to claim). The billionaire bros will avoid it all the same, operating as they do outside the traditional tax system.
Given the venality and stupidity of the federal government, far be it from me to slam a tax dodger. I, too, as it happens, am not a fan of subsidizing, say, Saudi bombs that massacre children in Yemen. If I could get away with not paying for that, I would. But here’s another thing I’m not always wild about funding: Elon Musk blowing up launch pads. I understand space research is a worthwhile cause, but is a little accountability too much to ask for? And is it really so unreasonable to think that at a time of appalling national debt, the billionaires ought not be ducking the IRS while simultaneously holding out their hands and demanding more?
Yet that seems to be the way in this age of private-public profiteering. I want to stress that I really am a wet on the whole ultra-rich question. I don’t believe, as a New York Times essay recently harrumphed, that there are no good billionaires. I’m not about to cynically dismiss their charitable giving to the arts, sciences and other societal goods I enjoy. I hardly think, as many today do, that affluence in itself is evil. I hope we do make it back to the moon — and if it happens to be on a Star Destroyer shaped like Jeff Bezos’s testes, let’s just make sure we’re paying the bridge officers $15 an hour.
What’s galling is that at a time of stagnating wages, the billionaire bros seem to think they’re entitled not just to their money but to ours. Is it any wonder that some are rooting for Bezos’s pilot to put him out the airlock?