On Branson, Bezos, and the Social Obligations of Wealth (or, how typed a too-long-for-print response to the question “Do the wealthiest among us have a moral obligation to focus their ‘extracurricular’ spending on projects that benefit the public good?”)

Richard M. Carpiano, Ph.D., M.P.H.

July 15, 2021

© Richard M. Carpiano 2021

The terrific staff at the University of California, Riverside’s Media Relations Office recently invited me to provide my thoughts for a piece they were running regarding the space travel activities of billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos.

Their question posed to me: Do the wealthiest among us have a moral obligation to focus their “extracurricular” spending on projects that benefit the public good?

As a professor of public policy who teaches courses on the ethical issues of public policy, this was right up my alley and hit on topics I plan to be covering with my class that begins in just a few days. Yet, in offering my response (via email as I usually do for these engaging pieces their office frequently runs), I unexpectedly threw concern for word limits to the wind, expounding (typing) a whole lot more than I usually do for such queries.

Understandably, they had to cut out much of what I submitted to fit into their final published piece (here: https://news.ucr.edu/articles/2021/07/14/billionaires-great-beyond). However, in light of the great published comments and issues raised by the other UCR faculty contributors to that piece, I decided to post my original, full response to that question, in case it might contribute to dialog on matters that concern many public policy (and more broadly, public, not private) issues and extend beyond just space ventures.

Here it is (all grammatical and other errors my own):

Do the wealthiest among us have a moral obligation to focus their “extracurricular” spending on projects that benefit the public good? The simple answer is “Yes.” In providing an explanation, three quotes come to my mind, which I use to frame my answer, as all three highlight the moral dimensions of such an issue.

1. “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Andrew Carnegie (1889)

The idea that a millionaire or billionaire is “self-made” is entirely a myth. Whether you are Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, or even a star athlete or actor, accomplishments and fortune come not just from hard work and whatever talents one might be fortunate enough to possess and have developed. They require resources from a society to enable that success to happen–whether it is public schooling, public infrastructure, the labor of others (think even school teachers), taxpayer subsidies, or many other things. Notably, Branson’s space flight benefitted from the public funds used to build New Mexico’s Spaceport America where his Virgin Galactic enterprise is based. 

As indicated by Carnegie’s quote, even he—whose business practices were highly criticized—recognized the need for the privileged to give back to society. During his lifetime, Carnegie gave away a large portion of his fortune via philanthropy (for example, funding museums, libraries, universities, and the Foundation that bears his name). Amidst the concerns about growing income inequality over the past several decades, fortunately, we see some semblance of Carnegie’s legacy in efforts like The Giving Pledge, an initiative started by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, that has aimed to recruit some of the richest people in the world to pledge to give a majority of their fortunes to philanthropy. Notably, Branson and his wife Joan Branson are among the more than 200 people who have signed on to that pledge. Though Bezos is not part of this initiative (his former spouse MacKenzie Scott and her husband Dan Jewett are), he does maintain a philanthropic portfolio of his own.

2. “With great power comes great responsibility” – An old quote that is popularly identified with the Spiderman comic and film franchise.

Wealth can provide a person with all sorts of life choices, but none that are free of consequence for oneself or others. Beyond the daily issues of business ethics and legal compliances (matters for which Branson and Bezos have received criticism), we cannot overlook the fact that any venture, even if it generates billions in wealth for its founders and investors, still has negative impacts upon the society in which it was developed. Certainly, many achievements provide societal benefits (e.g., medical therapies, software, electric cars, jobs), but the significant negative impacts make a billionaire’s social responsibility even more important. Mark Zuckerberg’s success with Facebook is a notable example, but this applies to Branson’s Virgin Galactic (and his larger Virgin Group of companies) and Bezos’ Amazon as well. For example, one does not have to be a card-carrying environmentalist to recognize the environmental impacts of the companies that Branson and Bezos have founded.

In 2021, it is basically an expectation by the general public that billionaires recognize their social responsibility to local and global communities and maintain a prominent philanthropic program. And, like Carnegie, many of these individuals have created foundations with specific philanthropic goals. Yet, even in these charitable, concerned citizen roles, the extent of their funding and the initiatives they wish to support with those funds can sometimes negatively influence or undermine agendas for addressing various global issues. Thus, once again, the warning to Peter Parker (Spiderman) from his dear Uncle Ben holds true: even when billionaires are trying to do good, there is a need for them to be cognizant of the impacts of their charitable ventures.   

3. “We’re all built up with progress / But sometimes I must confess / We can deal with rockets and dreams / But reality / What does it mean?” Singer-Songwriter Curtis Mayfield (1972)

Like the broad developments that came from NASA’s Mercury and Apollo programs, hopefully this Virgin Galactic achievement will contribute to significant scientific and technological benefits in the years ahead. But in the grand scheme of what this achievement is—i.e. a private company’s passenger flight occurring at the time of an international pandemic, significant signs of climate change, global poverty, and significant disinformation and science denialism, among many other threats facing our planet—hyping a feasible means of providing space tourism (currently an activity reserved for the wealthy) is not exactly the science news that our world needs. To be fair, Branson and Bezos engage extensively in philanthropy for social and environmental causes. However, the optics of such flights at this time risk being viewed as little more than a space race between two mega-rich people. In terms of social responsibility, that’s not a good look. This is especially the case for Branson, who has built a public image as a sort of compassionate, “self-made” billionaire personality.

In his post-flight press conference, Branson contended that he hopes this event inspires children to pursue science. Provided he was sincere about that and not just saying it to publicly rationalize pursuing his own childhood dreams of being an astronaut, there are many other ways for him and Bezos to play a significant role in providing children with that inspiration and the opportunities to nurture it. At this time, the world needs a lot from their segment of society—especially for them to keep their heads (and wealth, power, and moral obligation) a little less in the heavens versus right here on planet earth. Space-related research and development is important, but it is a comparatively easy investment versus helping fund ways to develop effective means to address the many complex social and ecological problems we have here on terra firma. Addressing human suffering is the greater moral imperative. And, of the many lessons that this pandemic has provided, one is that technology is not enough to fix these problems—no matter how charming or charismatic any billionaire is at their press conference.

© Richard M. Carpiano 2021