Jeff Bezos’s 10-minute trip to space has inspired a myriad of reactions, from boredom to anger to a surge of “space penis” memes making fun of the shape of his rocket. I am mortally certain this was not the reception Bezos — the richest person on Earth — was hoping for. And I hope that the world’s unimpressed reaction is followed by greater scrutiny of Bezos’s wealth, why he has it, and why we live under a system that makes it possible for anyone to hold over $200 billion while paying virtually no taxes.
By all reports, Bezos has been obsessed with space for 30 years, and spent a small fortune — a pittance to him, it is to be noted — almost but not quite getting there. After his billionaire rival, Richard Branson, pulled a similar stunt 10 days ago, you’d have thought from the media coverage that Branson had landed on the moon and discovered cold fusion in a crater. The coverage of the Bezos fling was about as exciting as this cat meme, and all he got for his troubles in the end were enough penis jokes to last 10 lifetimes.
You’d think the owner of The Washington Post would rate more ink from his colleagues in the biz, but alas for Bezos, he has learned a hard but unavoidable lesson: Almost nobody remembers someone who does something for the second time.
Case in point, and a pop quiz (no Googling the answer, you): It is universally known that Neil Armstrong was the first astronaut to step on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Who was the first astronaut out the door of Apollo 12, the second mission to land on the moon? Answer: Charles “Pete” Conrad. Extra points: What did he say after stepping out of the spacecraft? Answer: “Whoopie!”
Don’t worry, I had to look it up, too. No disrespect meant to astronaut Conrad, who did it right.
Yet as ridiculous as Bezos’s space coffee break was, I still get occasional pushback when I refer to people like him and Branson, who pay almost nothing in taxes annually, as “tax cheats.” They aren’t cheating, I am told, but are playing by the laws as they find them. Change the laws if you don’t like them!
Well, that right there is the thing. Most of us aren’t billionaires who can afford to financially adopt the kind of powerful politicians who can rewrite the tax codes in our favor. What do you call a system where rich people pay Congress members to do just that? I call it cheating, and sleep like a baby at night. If I slip a few Benjamins to the home plate umpire so he will expand the strike zone for my pitcher during the game, I am cheating, and that is this.
Such behavior has launched Bezos into an economic atmosphere no spacecraft can reach, whatever shape it may hold. In one second, Bezos makes as much or more money than the average worker pulls down in a week. In a minute, he makes more than the average worker earns in a year. “Based on the median net worth of an average US household, $97,300, an average American spending $1 is roughly equivalent to Bezos spending $1.95 million,” reports Business Insider. “The Amazon CEO’s net worth took a hit of more than $10 billion in 2019 — and he still didn’t lose his spot as the world’s richest person.”
Yes, Bezos has donated some of his money. After many years of not giving much of his fortune away, he and his then-wife have donated $2 billion to combat homelessness and improve education, gave $200 million to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, and pledged $10 billion to combat the climate crisis since 2018. This is great, but it represents an infinitesimal portion of his fortune. Thanks to the magic of compound interest, his own money will make that money back for him in the time it takes to drive to Nana’s house.
Instead of lauding Bezos’s late-blooming philanthropy, we should be asking ourselves: Why is it OK for anyone to have the amount of money that Bezos has, when so much of the world has so little?
Moreover, we should consider the manner in which that fortune was amassed. Amazon, Bezos’s massive company, came to be a $1.5 trillion economic juggernaut by using brazenly monopolistic tactics to either buy up rivals or run them off the road. The company pays almost nothing in taxes, and to pad the bottom line, Amazon has become one of the most notorious union-busting corporations on Earth.
“Recently, Amazon won a closely watched National Labor Relations Board election against the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama,” John Logan reported for Truthout in May. “But it did so only after spending millions of dollars on harassing and intimidating its workers for two months before the vote. Now, the company is using the same strategy to bust a new independent union drive at its Staten Island facility in New York.”
Before embarking on his little trip, Bezos made word noises that seemed to indicate he sort of, kind of gets it. When asked if these “joyrides for the wealthy” waste money that could be used to help people on Earth, he replied, “Well, I say they’re largely right. We have to do both. You know, we have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those, and we always need to look to the future. We’ve always done that as a species, as a civilization. We have to do both.”
We have to do both… so long as I get to play with my toys first. It was a politician’s answer, the kind of pabulum senators spout to reporters before the elevator doors close. I’ll believe Bezos and his ilk mean it if I never, ever hear talk about low-orbit billboards advertising Amazon products, or about corporate logos (come to think of it, the Amazon logo also has some strange penis action going on) visible on the moon. I fear that is where we are headed, because Bezos and Branson did not do this for the sake of discovery or exploration. They were clear: This was a step toward the commercialization of space, and I want no part of that.
Again, I am not alone. “What Branson’s and Bezos’s baby jaunts into the sky represent is not progress,” writes Barry Petchesky for Defector. “They are not about exploration or knowledge. They are moneymaking ventures. They are, as initially envisioned, about the promise of spaceflight tourism. They are symbolic, but of a future (and a present!) where only the extremely wealthy can get a taste of the peak awe that humanity is capable of feeling.”
There was no peak awe in beholding the Bezos space penis, and word has it Tesla billionaire Elon Musk is lining himself up to be the next obscenely wealthy turd to bounce some expensive metal off the inside of the outer atmosphere.
Meanwhile, billionaires like Bezos made your yearly salary three times over in the minutes it took you to read this article. Launch that into space.