Jeff Bezos, his brother, and two other passengers blasted off Tuesday for a 10-minute, 20-second rocket trip to the edge of space.
Back on Earth, groups trying to improve the lives of suffering and underprivileged people were left wondering when the Amazon founder may turn more of his attention, and more of his vast fortune, to assisting them.
The brief rocket ride was meant to give the space tourism industry — and perhaps Bezos’s ego — a lift. British billionaire Richard Branson beat Bezos with a rocket trip from his own space company, Virgin Galactic, last week. Both Bezos and Branson have said their ultimate goal is to aid the commercial development of space and perhaps even create a way off the planet if climate change ruins Earth.
But the billionaires’ space trips have also become a flashpoint in the debate over vast concentrations of wealth among a privileged few. With an estimated net worth of more than $200 billion, Bezos currently ranks as the richest person on the planet, nipping fellow space enthusiast Elon Musk, who’s in second place with $178 billion, according to Bloomberg. (Branson is far behind at under $7 billion.)
“His gaze is up towards the sky, not to the suffering and struggles people are facing emerging from the pandemic,” said Chuck Collins, the Boston-based director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies. “That is part of the challenge of being wealthy. It’s a disconnection drug; you’re in rarefied air. You can unplug, literally, and be like in outer space.”
Blue Origin, the space company Bezos started two decades ago, built the New Shepard rocket and crew capsule that carried Bezos, his brother Mark, 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk, and 18-year-old Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen to a height of 66.5 miles. The flight lifted off at about 9:15 a.m. EST on Tuesday from a launch pad in Van Horn, Texas, and touched down safely thereafter.
Bezos has said he is selling $1 billion a year of his Amazon stock holdings to fund Blue Origin. But with Amazon’s stock price nearly quintupling in the past five years, the spending has barely dented his net worth.
In terms of philanthropy, Bezos’s activity has not kept pace with his riches. Until two weeks ago, he was busy running Amazon, so he could be following the path of 19th-century magnates Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, or the more recent mega-billionaire Bill Gates, in building his fortune before focusing on philanthropy.
But the scale of Bezos’s wealth may also require giving on a scale never seen before, even from Gates.
In 2018, after years of muted donations, Bezos and his then-wife gave $2 billion to fight homelessness and improve education. Amid criticism of Amazon’s impact on climate change, Bezos last year pledged $10 billion to address the crisis, doling out about $800 million in actual donations to environmental groups. And last week, he gave $200 million to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
On Monday in an interview with CNN, Bezos acknowledged critics of the flight. “They’re largely right,” he said. “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.”
Blue Origin did not respond to an e-mail from the Globe seeking comment.
MacKenzie Scott, Bezos’s former wife, got $36 billion in Amazon stock as part of the couple’s 2019 split and has been much more aggressive in giving the money away. She immediately signed the “Giving Pledge,” promising to give away the majority of her wealth. After donating $6 billion to hundreds of charities in 2020, she gave away another $2.7 billion in June.
Still, even Scott has been unable to outpace the rise in Amazon’s stock price with her giving: Bloomberg puts her current net worth at $63 billion, good for 15th in the world.
That may be an indication that trying to give away vast fortunes to worthy causes — in the footsteps of business magnates of the past like Carnegie and Rockefeller — has become outmoded.
“This version of capitalism has broken the models of philanthropic redistribution that developed in the 20th century,” said Ben Soskis, senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.
Carnegie gave away an estimated $350 million before his death in 1919, worth about $5.5 billion in today’s dollars, or less than 3 percent of Bezos’s fortune. The incredible projected costs of developing industries in space could be one of the few causes that matches the size of the 21st-century mega-billionaires’ assets, Soskis said.
“Something to watch pretty closely is how do you absorb this much money,” Soskis added. “They desperately need causes that can absorb fortunes on a scale that we just haven’t seen before.”
Bezos stepped down as chief executive of Amazon on July 6, in part so he could devote more attention to philanthropy. Carnegie largely waited until he had sold his businesses and retired before committing most of his resources to philanthropy. By the time he died in 1919, he had given away 90 percent of his fortune, helped build 3,000 libraries around the world, founded what became Carnegie Mellon University, paid for 7,000 church organs, built Carnegie Hall in New York City, and started the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Like Bezos and many of today’s tycoons, however, Carnegie also faced criticism that he had exploited and mistreated workers to amass his wealth.
The latest complaints about billionaires in space echoes criticism from the 1960s of the government’s space spending by people who wanted the funds used to fight poverty, inequity, and disease. Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken poem, Whitey on the Moon, captured the spirit of the times:
The man just upped my rent last night / (‘cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights / (but Whitey’s on the moon)
I wonder why he’s upping me? / (’cause Whitey’s on the moon?)
No humans have been on the moon since 1972, but NASA wants to return. Blue Origin lost out to Elon Musk’s SpaceX in bidding to build a next-generation moon landing craft.
So the next version of the protest song might be “Elon on the Moon.”
Aaron Pressman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.