SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, promoting SpaceX. Credit: Business Insider.
This morning, on Marketwatch, Marek Fuchs offered some interesting thoughts on the billionaire quest for human space flight and the colonization of Mars.
For those who don’t follow the business press, Marketwatch, “published by Dow Jones & Co…. with more than 16 million visitors per month…is part of The Wall Street Digital Network, which includes WSJ.com, Barrons.com, AllThingsD.com, BigCharts.com and VirtualStockExchange.com.” This is an outlet I’d certainly categorize as mainstream media.
Fuchs is a former stockbroker and business journalist turned journalism professor.
On Marketwatch, Fuchs observes, “Looking at the overwrought media coverage of the billionaire space cadets, you can’t help but think that a kick-it-to-the-limit, faith-driven ethos has overtaken our economy.” He is of course referring to the so-called “commercial” space developers Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk.
Overwrought, indeed – coverage sometimes verges on religious fervor….
According to Forbes magazine, Jeff Bezos’s net worth is $46.7 billion. With a B. Branson’s net worth: $5.1 billion. Musk’s net worth: $13 billion.
For comparison, according to the World Bank, the PPP GNI (gross national income converted to international dollars using purchasing power parity rates) of Cambodia in 2014 was $47.5 billion; Guyana, $5.6 billion; and Iceland, $13.9 billion.
Fuchs argues that we need billionaires to invest in less glamorous but more practical enterprises – he notes that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates “are buying up railroads like a pair of latter-day Vanderbilts.”
(Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a bunch of billionaires decided to build a national high-speed railway system that could get people and their cars and goods and their trucks off the highways – at an affordable price? I can dream, can’t I?)
(And now I’m just making stuff up – but what about if the billionaires put up just $1 billion to subsidize Syrian refugee families for a year? At $50,000 per family – a wild guess – that would cover 20,000 families.)
“I suppose every healthy society — and economy — needs those with dreams fevered enough to challenge our assumptions, as well as incrementalists who focus on patching and dabbing at troubles,” Fuchs says. “The problem here comes in the balance…. In an era of zero interest rates, in which the major government initiative to improve the economy is to heedlessly print money, do we really need our highest-profile business leaders frittering away their time playing rockets instead of trains?”
I would say no.
And yet I have no doubt that the media, and government officials, too (see photo above), will continue to fawn over these businessmen and talk up their dreams of living on Mars.
See: Meghan Daum’s profile of Musk in Vogue magazine, photo by Annie Leibovitz. (Geeze.)
Also see this item from Reuters about Brevard County’s provision of $40 million in incentives, including an $8 million grant, to Bezos’s company Blue Origins. Bezos announced September 15 that Blue Origins plans to build a rocket plant in Brevard.
And check out this interesting piece by Noah Smith, a professor of finance at Stony Brook University and contributor to Bloomberg View that pokes some holes in the “great man” myth about Musk. “Entrepreneurs and institutions are highly complementary,” Smith writes. SpaceX would not exist without Musk, nor would it exist as it is today without outright government support and a heritage of government-funded technology to build on.