On Elon, Sir Richard, Bezos, and world hunger...
There's been a recent push across my news feeds that seems too coordinated to be not an organized propaganda effort to undermine the efforts of Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk by accusing them of playing with toys instead of using their wealth to solve world hunger.
While this criticism is hardly limited to memes (a quick search turns up a glut of recent "articles" with outrage-inducing statements that Bezos, Branson, and Musk could "...prevent people from starving to death 60 times over..."), the central argument boils down to a caricature of the three as billionaires frittering away their dollars on frivolous space adventures while the world burns and people starve. The interested players here seem to have motivations ranging from "billionaires shouldn't exist" to "tax the rich" to "guys, please give us $6B to help end world hunger... by the way, I'm going to ask you this publicly on Twitter. Not to try and shame you if you don't or anything. Kthxbyeeeee."
It's difficult to disagree with the sentiment. After all, the way many of the global elite dodge taxation is literally criminal.
Billionaires Being Billionaires
And yes. In that photo, Branson and Musk are "guys being dudes." They aren't gods or heroes. They are flawed, selfish humans with big egos.
We know this. So... why do we expect them to solve world hunger alone? That's not their skill set. Thinking they should (or even could) solve world hunger by themselves only further propagates the "billionaires are gods who can solve all the world's problems with a check" fantasy, and that's not a healthy myth to continue to popularize.
We shouldn't expect them to do it alone. We should expect our governments to employ fair tax policies that raise the capital necessary to provide an economic floor, while ending inhumane foreign policy measures that cause hunger in other countries.
Branson and Musk can't fix our politics alone, either, but (as far as I can tell) at least they aren't fighting against our efforts to do so (Bezos is another story, but the meme was about Branson and Musk).
But they COULD write a check...right?
Sure, they could. But even if you put Bezos, Musk, and Branson's combined net worth together, liquidated their companies, and put all of it towards the sole purpose of ending hunger, you'd still have less than a third of what the U.S. government spends in a single year.
Speaking of governing bodies... the UN's claim we can solve world hunger for $6B or even $60B is insanely optimistic. The U.S. dropped multiple TRILLIONS of dollars in stimulus into the economy last year, and it barely made a dent in our overall child hunger stats. And that's just here in the U.S.!
The stimulus failed to solve hunger because it was gobbled up by politicians, businesses, and people who took aid they didn't need before it could get to the hungry. Yes, this includes some billionaires, but it also includes businesses and everyone in the middle class on up who took those stimulus checks and used them to pay rent, feed their kids better food, or fund an IRA, instead of donating it to the Food Bank (self included).
Blaming billionaires for not doing enough to solve world hunger is a convenient way to wash our hands of personal responsibility as voters and citizens.
But selfishness wasn't the only culprit! Let's not forget ineptitude! In many cases, actual hungry people couldn't get stimulus checks because they couldn't show proof of work (because our stimulus was tied to income tax returns). This is because America has no system in place to get money directly to citizens who don't have a recent work history (Gosh! If only Elon Musk had spent his time working on ways to democratize digital payments instead of playing with rockets!).
Basic human selfishness, combined with a systemic lack of financial infrastructure, an outdated Congressional understanding of available innovations, lack of administrative direction, and poor oversight were the biggest culprits in the stimulus checks' failure to significantly impact hunger. Billionaires aren't blameless in that list, and many of them are culpable for their share of that grift. However, as far as I can tell, Branson and Musk weren't among them. They were busy playing with their own pet projects.
That's better, and here's why.
Tesla was built to end our dependence on fossil fuels. Virgin Galactic was built to democratize space and bring humanity closer together. These are noble goals, and both companies will revolutionize humanity through their efforts - INCLUDING making a tangible impact on world hunger!
If we're looking for billionaire boogeymen, we can find worse ones than the guys trying to innovate our way out of global warming and take humanity to the edges of the earth. Guys that (if we're being intellectually honest) run companies that will help bring food to more people around the globe through their efforts.
"Did he just say Tesla and Virgin Galactic will help solve world hunger?"
I did, and I believe they will. But is that their intent? Or is it just a sales pitch? Let me take a moment and back up my thesis that these guys really are working on technologies that will help end world hunger on a practical level.
First, let's review Branson's above the fold headline on the Virgin Galactic website:
“We are at the vanguard of a new industry determined to pioneer twenty-first century spacecraft, which will open space to everybody — and change the world for good.”
– Sir Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Galactic
Ok, that's cute, but... salesman gotta sell, right? So, let's review this passage from the company's management letter to shareholders in the most recent quarterly SEC filings, specifically as it pertains to the company's research arm:
"We believe that research experiments will benefit from prolonged exposure to space conditions and yield better results aboard SpaceShip due to the large cabin, gentler loading during flight, relatively low cost, advantageous operational parameters, and frequent flights. As such, researchers and educators are able to conduct critical experiments and obtain important data without having to sacrifice time and resources. Our commitment to advancing research and science was present in our December 2018 and February 2019 spaceflights as we transported payloads into space for research purposes under a NASA flight contract." - Virgin Galactic 10-Q, May 11, 2021
In addition to these commitments, the company is already raffling off seats on their spaceships to random people who help fund its nonprofit, "Space for Humanity," and has sections on its website promising to take students up on flights.
I'd say that's a pretty strong indicator of commitment to democratizing space flight for all of us, as well as to science, education, and R&D. So what's the hunger angle?
Well, Virgin Atlantic (the airline, not the spaceline) recently increased their cargo shipments by 60% in January of 2021... and that was BEFORE they had *rocket freight*.
Do we really think Branson and co. are going to let the cash cow of being the global space freight leader slip through their fingers when they have pole position, experience with air freight, and recognize the value of cargo? Sure! Maybe! But not likely.
If Virgin Galactic becomes a major space freight player, we could see farm equipment make its way from Iowa to the Central African Republic in a few hours. That's going to have a huge impact on the ability to create sustainable farmland throughout the world, which will be critical to ending world hunger.
I feel fairly confident in my predictions that Branson's publicly-traded company will do what he says it is going to do. If the company deviates, there are statements in black and white indicating their path. The company will have to explain the deviation.
Which brings us to Musk.
Elon is a bit more...well, let's be kind and say "mercurial." It's harder to predict what SpaceX will do because it's a private company and not beholden to shareholders. And, to be fair, even Elon's public company, Tesla, is notorious for promising big and then shifting gears at the last minute (and Elon running himself afoul of the SEC in the process).
However, the entire presentation at Tesla's 2020 Battery Day event dealt with how the company's main goal is to move humanity away from fossil fuels. Also buried in the event was the announcement that the company has come up with a way to reduce battery manufacturing costs by 76%, make them more efficient, and make them with zero wastewater.
“Climate change is the biggest threat that humanity faces this century, except for AI,” Musk said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I keep telling people this."
Elon's thesis appears to be that we can't solve world hunger if we can't grow crops due to global warming, and it's a pretty difficult position to dispute.
And for all his baits and switches, when it comes to the environment, Elon is fairly responsive. Tesla just inked an agreement with some home developers in Austin to build an entire community with their solar roof panels - the first such community in the nation in a city that could definitely use more homes.
This will be a model for the rest of the nation on the benefits of a more sustainable lifestyle. All eyes will be on it. You better believe "sustainable" solar communities will have a food component to them. Eco-conscious tech-savvy millennials are their core brand. I wouldn't be surprised if each house has an avocado tree planted in the front yard! (Bring your own toast!)
Reducing global energy demands and building sustainable communities are both going to be key points in reducing hunger, in Texas and around the world. If you build people houses, they have a place to keep their food. If you create good jobs, like the 5000+ jobs at the Texas Tesla CyberTruck plant creating big beautiful trucks that will one day be able to be refueled by the sun hitting your roof - they can buy that toast for their avocado trees.
So, to say that Elon is "only" interested in going to space because he's "playing space games" just isn't true. But since we're on the subject...
Let's talk SpaceX for a second.
SpaceX's Starlink project has been cleared by the FCC to launch 12,000 satellites into orbit - more than all satellites launched in human history combined. The ultimate goal according to Elon is to "rebuild the internet in space" so that you can get dependable internet anywhere in the world.
While there are legitimate criticisms of this project (particularly from astronomers and researchers), globally accessible satellite internet will be critical in developing the supply chains and global infrastructure necessary to get food to where it needs to go to end world hunger and to monitor our progress.
As for Bezos...
Well, of the three, Bezos is the richest. He's also probably the least worker-friendly, and the still-privately-owned Blue Origin really does seem more like a vanity project (though that may just be because of its excruciatingly cringey phallic rocket design). Also, Amazon and Bezos are both infamous tax dodgers, so if you're going to go after a billionaire for putting himself literally above humanity, Bezos seems the better target than Branson or Musk.
But if we're going to solve world hunger, do we really think that a global logistics company like Amazon won't be a major player in that effort? In addition to its own efforts to implement online retail worldwide, Amazon inspired the creation of companies like Jumia, which is trying to develop the infrastructure for online retail in Africa.
The hard truth is that, while funding programs that help fight world hunger is important, so is innovation.
That meme I referenced at the start of this rant was sent to us...
through the internet
by a computer built with technology derived from NASA's race to space
(one of the many incredible innovations of the era).
Like NASA before them, the innovations created by Tesla, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Amazon, (and yes, even Blue Origin) have already reshaped our world and will continue to do so. They may even help us find a practical end to world hunger one day.
But don't expect billionaire bros to solve everything for us out of the goodness of their hearts, or by shaming them on the internet for their innovations. Instead, let's just make sure we tax them fairly (read: close loopholes they use to dodge taxes), prioritize humanity-first policies with those tax dollars, and vote out anyone who gets in the way.
(Full disclosure: I own shares of Jumia, Virgin Galactic and Tesla. I do so because I believe in their ability to expand online shopping in emerging nations, fight global warming, bring us together as a species, and, yes, help end poverty and hunger worldwide.)