Space Billionaires

There’s an old saying, attributed to Mark Twain [1], that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.” It’s a good saying and has a lot of history behind it, but I want to propose a new one:

What you think is going on isn’t actually true. The truth is far messier.

Right now, there’s a lot of scuttle about some extremely rich people and their interest in private space flight. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos all have companies that are building rockets and trying to make money off of leaving the planet.

The basic complaints are as follows:

  • “These billionaires should be solving world hunger/fighting climate change/helping orphans instead of going to space!”
  • “They wouldn’t be billionaires if they paid their employees a living wage!”
  • “These billionaires don’t pay taxes anyway!”

None of these claims are, strictly speaking, the the actual truth. This is fairly easy to show with a little bit of research.

The real truth is complicated and hard to summarize. But I’ll try:

  • Actually, they have given way more money to charity then they have put into space ventures (not that donations and investments are the same) and plus the financial cost to address these issues is thousands of times more ginormous than all of the money these guys have, combined.
  • Actually, they are generally following the law, so they are pretty much paying what everyone pays. Billionaires aren’t special in this way.
  • Actually, they pay a ton of taxes. But they don’t pay taxes like you or I because the tax code is unfathomably complicated. And honestly, we really have no idea how much they shell out (although we can surmise it’s as little as possible.)

These answers are not satisfying. It’s a lot easier to call the billionaires the villains. It’s also pretty easy to call them the heroes: as innovators and employers.

But neither is true. And until we learn to accept that the real world is messy, and absolute answers are rare—we are unlikely to make much progress.

There are problems with the billionaires, to be sure. But the biggest problem of all is thinking the answers are easy.

That’s the lie traveling around the world right now: the lie that there are lots of simple answers.

Let’s tell the truth. The answer usually is, “it’s complicated.”


[1] An example of a lie is the supposed origin of this quote, which was not Mark Twain. (But it sure is easier to think it was him!)

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