The Malady of Mistrust

In July 2021, two uncommonly significant things happened. Richard Branson (needs no introduction) along with his crew flew to into space…technically about 50 miles above the earth. This was soon followed by Jeff Bezos (needs no introduction either) getting into the act with his space crew. Most of us read about these two journeys with a “wow” factor. Let’s admit it – it does take a ton of courage to accomplish such a feat. It also takes years of preparation and truckloads of money….

Recently, the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, in his speech tore into these extraordinary entrepreneurs saying that this “race to space” did nothing to help the problems of the earth. The problems he was referring to were of poverty, primary healthcare and education amongst the poorest of the poor in this world. He went on to say that these “visits” to space opened up the social gap between the poor and the wealthy. He termed it as the “malady of mistrust” or a disease of no-confidence. He was referring to creation of situation where the rich and influential cannot be relied on making a difference to the lives of the most deprived or contain the problems related to climate change.

Every one of us have our own opinion on this and really, there is no right or wrong judgement. It’s personal…at best.

Richard and Jeff flew their private rockets funded through their own cash. Nothing wrong with that – but when you add to it that for the last few years Jeff hasn’t paid a dollar in income tax. I don’t have the similar data for Richard but I know that few years ago he moved some of his companies out of Britain to Necker Island in the Caribbean which has zero tax rate. Let’s take a look at how much money was invested in organising these joyrides. Jeff’s project spent a whopping US$ 5.5 billion for a 4minute space journey where Richard spent US$ 841 million. Let’s put these numbers into perspective.

Jeff’s expenditure was more than the GDP figures of 40 countries of the world (obviously the lowest 40) including Bhutan, Guyana & Seychelles. Richard’s expenditure, on the other hand, is almost exactly the amount United Nations humanitarian chief in Afghanistan has appealed to help the war torn country cope up with the Taliban offensive. A different way to look at it could be – current world population is 7.9 billion. In 2015, 10% of us lived under the UN poverty line which is less than US$ 1.90/day. Let’s say things have changed for the better today we have 7% of the global population below poverty line. We’re still looking at about 550 million people give or take a few million under the poverty line. If Jeff and Richard decided not to go space but channelise their expenditure into helping the global poorest of the poor they would have “injected” a combined US$ 6.34 billion to help these 550 million souls. That’s a factor of over 11.5 – which means they could have donated almost US$ 22 per person to each of these 550 million poorest people around the world. Now that does give a sense perspective, doesn’t it?

I know that I have oversimplified the situation. You could argue that Jeff and Richard are not responsible world poverty, and you would be right. In counter, I would ask what scientific goals their short but extremely trendy and expensive space sojourn accomplish. We could go on and on…..

It might also be worth taking a look at how these two gentlemen handled the criticism they faced upon return. Jeff, whose company Amazon has been accused of offering its hourly employees not enough break times, putting too much reliance on rigid productivity metrics and having unsafe working conditions, was graceful in accepting the rebuke. He said that his critics were “largely right”. Richard too agreed with those who felt that he could have allocated his funds in more useful ways. Maybe it was just a PR stunt…else why spend this astronomical amounts only to accept that the money could have been better utilised.

That said, Richard Branson has pledged to commit US$3 billion, all profits from his travel firms over the next ten years, to the reduction of global warming. Jeff Bezos has donated US$10 billion to launch the Bezos Earth Fund. He also contributed $100 million to Feeding America, the organization that supplies more than 200 food banks. It all boils down to this – how far are you going to go to realise your (very expensive) dreams when you know very well that the money could be better utilised for social and environmental causes. Or does donating by one hand and spending by the other remit the debate. You decide…. before Elon Musk jumps into the next rocket…..

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