The surprise lies in the fact that billionaires still exist, not that they are going to space

Disclaimer: This text is a translation. The original can be found here.

Last week, before the opening of the Olympics, one of the most popular topics on social media was about Jeff Bezos going to space right after Richard Branson did. The triad of entrepreneurs Bezos-Branson-Musk has been defining this new space race known among specialists as New Space — i.e., the incorporation of private sector investment in the space industry. Not only them but other entrepreneurs like Peter Diamandis have been already betting on other space-related businesses such as asteroid mining, thus paving the way for a new frontier, that is, space.

However, not all people are happy with the news. Some have pointed to the fact that these space expeditions leave a worrisome carbon footprint, especially when considered the method used by Richard Branson at Virgin Galactic, In Bezos’ case, his company Blue Origin has a less pollutant method, since the ship uses liquid hydrogen and oxygen as combustible — those, when activated, produce water vapor instead of CO2. On the other hand, it is emblematic that the billionaires themselves are part of the crew: more than an egocentric move, it is also a great marketing stunt, after all, sending people that are “worth” billions of dollars to space isn’t something small and trivial.

But is it worth spending so much money on such enterprises? The U.S. senator Bernie Sanders, for instance, tweeted that while Americans are facing trouble to buy food and visit a doctor, these billionaires are going to space — hence one more reason to tax their fortunes. Still, Bezos argues that it is important that more people like him, that is, billionaires, use their fortune in enterprises that may seem exaggerated at first sight, but which will be extremely important as future legacy.

This is the point when we get to the fateful question about the reasons why these billionaires are not investing in issues such as famine, the climate and refugee crisis, poverty etc. In fact, many of these corporations are indeed working on initiatives that have such goals, but this doesn’t mean that their mission is to actually eliminate these problems, but to ameliorate them.

In a recent interview, Riachuelo’s owner says that taxing fortunes could be a means to reduce inequality, but, on the other hand, this would impoverish the rich and make them leave the country — and this is a rationale that says a lot alone. Nobody has ever found out the panacea for poverty and inequality, to the extent that today we face a scenario in which the richest 1% of the world have a fortune that is twice the wealth held by 6.9 billion people. Even though welfare has improved through technological and scientific innovation, this doesn’t mean that those which were already on top didn’t climb even higher to the peak.

Still, it is important to remember another perspective posed by the physicist Michio Kaku in his book Physics of the Future: technology’s tendency is to become increasingly cheaper and accessible as it advances — this is what Moore’s Law suggests too. For Kaku, this happens in four stages: first, technology is something so inaccessible that not even the richest ones are able to enjoy it, but, soon those who have the means will be able to pay for the access; on a third stage, prices grow cheaper and the technology starts its democratizing process before finally becoming something trivial or even decorative.

Both Kaku and Alexey Dodsworth in his PhD thesis “Ethics and Metaphysics of Transhumanism” use electricity as an example for this theory: first, it was inaccessible to everyone but people working in the labs, but soon electricity became available for the wealthier who could pay for it and, finally, it become so cheap that anyone could take advantage of it. According to Dodsworth, this same principle applies to medicine and other industries, which brings us to the conclusion that the same shall happen with space.

However, there is still another side to this story: “Self-made billionaires tend to believe that life is a meritocracy and that they’ve become rich because they’re superior to everyone else,” wrote Geoffrey James in an article for Inc. This kind of belief makes billionaires think that they are above law, so they have an extreme self-confidence: “The undeniable fact that they can buy just about anything they want becomes conflated into the belief that they can accomplish anything they want.”

In order for this richest 1% to exist, it was necessary to leave the remaining 99% behind. When Bezos thanked his employees and customers of Amazon for making it possible for him to travel to space, it is possible to believe that he was even humble, but the truth is that, while he was spending 27 million dollars to enjoy five minutes in space, almost half of humanity is living on less than $5.50 a day.

The problem is therefore not so much the fact that these billionaires are going to space, after all, given the chance, many people would like to experience that too. The question is that, ultimately, billionaires are an economic, political and even moral aberration.

The outrage in these enterprises is so deep because we are talking about such a profound inequality that is capable of making only 1% of humanity as rich as these guys. If we had these statistics more balanced, that is, if social inequality wasn’t so overwhelming, would we feel so offended by the five minutes these billionaires spent in space?

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Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.