At least Cornelius Vanderbilt endowed a university. The quintessential 19th-century robber baron otherwise concerned himself with sweet-talking congress for aid to his railroads and indulging in luxuries that would seem outlandish to the thousands living in tenements in his home city of New York, New York. Today, his successors in the world of obscene wealth hardly gesture at having a civic-minded spirit. We saw that hedonism on display in Richard Branson’s flight to outer space.

Branson went on a joy ride 53.3 miles above the Earth’s surface as part of a “test flight”/wealth-flaunting for his massive conglomerate, Virgin Galactic. It cost fellow passengers $200,000 per seat to accompany Mr. Branson on his sojourn into the cosmos. Why Richard Branson and his fellow billionaires need to taste the bliss of escaping Earth’s reach is not clear. As the wealthiest man in the world put it, perhaps they can’t think of anything else on which to spend their riches.

That would be Jeff Bezos. A tycoon at the height of his powers, Bezos presides over one of the largest corporations in the world, with a horrific labor record. Hustling to fulfill 48-hour delivery promises, Amazon drivers have been known to urinate in bottles. Tens of thousands of Amazon warehouse workers contracted COVID-19 during a pandemic in which Bezos’s wealth increased by $8 billion in one day. Bezos played nearly every city in the country, even struggling Hickory, North Carolina, for fools in a sweepstakes for 50,000 jobs, and awarded the prize to two metro areas that have absolutely no need for another infusion of capital. He is the perfect exemplar of our age.

And his and Branson’s vacation among the stars is just the most extreme instance of super-rich self-segregation we have yet seen. Neither Bezos nor Branson has any need to spend millions on a short trip to outer space. They are not astronauts or scientists. Their space tourism will contribute nothing to human knowledge or human achievement. They are just tone-deaf billionaires blowing cash like e-commerce addicts on an adventure that mocks any notion of social responsibility. In that, they represent the mindset that overtook the American economic elite decades ago when Ronald Reagan taught capitalism’s winners that greed is good.

The sad thing is that no one will remember Branson and Bezos’s wasteful foray into outer space. At least the Vanderbilt family built grand abodes, most notably the Biltmore House in an idyllic Blue Ridge Mountain Valley outside the jewel of the North Carolina mountains, Asheville, the Land of the Sky. Branson and Bezos are just indulging their vanity and putting their hedonism on full display while people across the world suffer from an economic crisis that has fully exempted the billionaire class and other monied elites. I used to think that a hedge fund manager’s pickled shark was the most ridiculous bit of billionaire conspicuous consumption. In fact, it’s Richard Branson’s rocket.


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