Jeff Bezos successfully launched himself toward the sun on a giant rocket shaped like a peen yesterday — good for him I suppose. As far as symbols of the new gilded age go, it’s hard to beat obscenely wealthy men blowing billions of dollars on a new space race while millions of Americans starve, sleep on the streets, and go without needed medical care.
Over at MSNBC, Talia Lavin lays out the moral case against space privatization. “The whole ordeal is too apt a metaphor for the slow and then dizzyingly fast collapse of America,” she writes. “What once was a public effort turned into a private playground for the ultra-wealthy, the commons hollowed out and impoverished to make room for immense consolidated wealth.”
None of this happened by accident. It’s a direct result of the economic policies pursued by Democrats and Republicans alike for the better part of the past 40 years — slash taxes on the rich while dismantling the social safety net, all in the name of making the good line go up.
On the other hand, nearly two-thirds of Americans are supportive of private space exploration, according to a recent YouGov/Economist poll. Majorities of every demographic group agree that “private companies and individuals should be able to build their own rockets to take people into space.” The one quasi-exception is Black Americans, who split precisely down the middle at 50/50 on the question.
You can see why: funding space exploration, even the private kind, isn’t a bad way to spend billions of dollars relative to some of the alternatives, like buying up private islands or having sex with whales. In some ways it’s even preferable to having a government monopoly on spacefaring, given all the important stuff governments need to deal with on Earth.
The thing is, we don’t actually have to choose between space exploration and a more humane society at home. We can have both.
Economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have run the numbers. Bezos’ net worth is somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 billion dollars. Saez and Zucman have calculated that if an Elizabeth Warren-style wealth tax (2 percent on wealth over $50 million, with an additional 1% tacked on to wealth in excess of $1 billion) had been in place since 1982, Jeff Bezos would be worth roughly $67 billion today. Had the steeper wealth tax favored by Bernie Sanders been in force, Bezos would have a net worth around $58 billion.
$58 billion dollars is still a shitload of cash. In fact, according to Fortune magazine it’s more than ten times the amount ($5.5 billion) that Bezos has personally spent on Blue Origin, his space company.
In the counter-factual universe where a Sanders-style wealth tax has existed since 1982, in other words, Jeff Bezos would still be going on his joyride this week.
There are other ways to tax billionaires too. You could tax capital gains — the passive income that accrues to stocks and other assets — at the same rate as regular income, rather than the heavily discounted rate those gains enjoy now. You could impose a one-time surcharge on the unrealized gains of billionaires, generating a trillion bucks in revenue. You could beef up the estate tax to prevent the accrual of dynastic wealth. You could simply allow the IRS to enforce the tax laws already on the books.
But Congress is doing none of those things, in part because Congress doesn’t do much of anything these days. That’s exactly the way billionaires like it. The current zero-sum binary on space exploration — “should we go to space, or should we help people here on Earth?” — is a false one: we actually can do both.
We can feed everyone, house everyone, and let the rich have their rocket-measuring contests on Mars. This country is absolutely loaded with cash, and the only reason it seems like it isn’t is that the wealthy are hogging most of those riches for themselves: there’s $129 trillion in household wealth in the U.S., but $90 trillion of it is locked up in the hoards of the richest 10 percent.
So let’s tax it already. Once guys like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk pay their fair share of taxes here on Earth, who cares if they blow the rest of their wads measuring their rockets on Mars?