A case of the Smithers

The bondservants of the rich evade disaster, for the moment

I’ve been writing about Megan McArdle off and on for yeeeears, brothers and sisters, yeeeeears, since she was styling herself “Jane Galt,” an obvious tribute to Ayn Rand. Over time she tumbled that wearing one’s libertarianism on one’s sleeve was a career impediment, and simply followed the libertarian prime directive (opulentos adoremus) but with a classic conservative tone and manner, as with her “marriage makes you rich” columns. This got her better gigs, but she never lost that peculiar libertarian insensitivity to the suffering of those who are not rich, as most famously shown by her Grenfell Tower column in which she compared builders following housing safety codes to drivers following a 5 mph speed limit. Boring!

After McArdle ascended to her Washington Post column in 2018, her prose quickly got milkier and less interesting, tending toward a Peggy Noonanesque passive-aggressiveness — presumably with an eye on taking La Noonan’s perch once she passes on.  But last week Richard Branson shot into near-space, and Jeff Bezos was slated to do so shortly thereafter, offering her a triple reason to celebrate in print — Bezos is rich, plus he’s her boss, and a lot of people were asking: Why does our badly broken country even have gazillionaires who can afford their own personal NASA just for shits and giggles and pay no tax to speak of?

So into this fray McArdle flew. She starts her July 13 column by addressing “quibblers” who think the tycoons’ short space flights are trivial and even “delusional,” unlikely to advance serious space travel or any of the scientific benefits that come with it:

I’ll pause to note that the few billionaires I’ve met in my professional life have demonstrated a better-than-average familiarity with reality. They also tend to have a better-than-average familiarity with how innovation works.

You think the super-rich aren’t real? They’re mighty real! Sure, your dad may know how to build a house or flush a central line, but Branson and Bezos know about innovation! Who thought about selling books online before Bezos? Well, Book Stacks Unlimited, but it was Bezos who got rich and that’s plenty innovative enough for me, brother!

So they probably understand what their critics clearly don’t: how even a fleeting roller-coaster ride into the Earth’s thermosphere can be an enduring contribution to humanity.

For example, for the first time in history we know what a billionaire’s heart rate does on re-entry.

OK, McArdle suddenly admits, “at this moment, space flight is not very useful.” But think of the future, littlebrains!

But one could say the same thing about virtually everything humanity has done since we left our fellow apes behind. History is littered with explorers and colonies that failed, the experimental technologies that blew up in the faces of their inventors — metaphorically or literally.

Every human alive today is the unlikely heir of adventurers who were willing to dare despite the odds. And every new breakthrough, from fire onward, was undoubtedly deprecated by neighbors who considered the thing a pointless waste: Why mess around with flint, or try to take on a gazelle, when you could be digging for grubs or perhaps picking lice out of someone’s hair?

Think about those brave explorers who crossed the Atlantic in 1967 – I mean Columbus did it earlier, sure, and so did a lot of other people, but exploration is an iterative process and when Grandpa took BOAC in the 60s he was one of a long line of brave adventurers. Oh, you think not? I suppose you think it would be better if we never went anywhere!

She literally just goes on and on like that (“And such flights are a great platform for the kind of incremental innovation that eventually transformed Orville and Wilbur Wright’s motorized box kite into a Boeing 737…”).  And she’s not the only one. “Forget the Democratic haters — Bezos flight represents innovation, brilliant future,” harrumphs John “fils” Podhoretz at the New York Post.

An American born to a 17-year-old mother, adopted at the age of 4 by her newly wedded Cuban immigrant husband and raised in middle-class circumstances in Texas and Florida, gave a valedictory speech at his high school graduation speech in 1982. His goal in life, Jeff Bezos said, was to colonize space.

No. Sorry, no. This whole shtick of trying to make an unexceptional and certainly un-impoverished 20th Century American boyhood (“middle-class circumstances,” LOL) sound like Lincoln writing on a coal shovel in a log cabin went out with Little Orphan Steve Jobs. At this stage of the game you’re not going to use tattered Horatio Alger tropes to tear our attention away from the climate, social, and political catastrophe that is modern America, nor from the fact that gazillionaires like Bezos not only do nothing to help us with that but also actually leech off our resources to launch themselves aloft.

Podhoretz tries the same absurd claim as McArdle that this space tourism is like Lewis & Clark mixed with Watson & Crick – “the technological innovations that will be the offshoots and products of what Bezos and his fellow explorers are making possible today,” Podhoretz claims, will help — get this — the “2.2 billion people [who] don’t have access to clean drinking water.” If you really want to punish yourself you can read Dan Baseball Crank McLaughlin at National Review compare Bezos to Commodore Vanderbilt — Vanderbilt’s ship helped win the Civil War, and Bezos’ spaceship, it, well, did I mention the bit about his heart rate?

No one believes this. And no one thinks McArdle, Podhoretz, or McLaughlin believe it either, not even their editors if they have any. Everyone knows the super-rich are nether a public good nor an adornment, but a drain on and an embarrassment to us all. Just look at the fuckers. Who looks at Elon Musk and thinks, this guy is really committed to making life better for me and future generations? (Besides the weird nerds, I mean.) If they want even more money, and they do, they don’t have to create any value to get it — they just have to move some assets around, trade some of their world-portions with some other oligarch, and their curve goes up.

And everyone’s pissed about it. Even MAGA morons are, too — they just focus more on whatever tech millionaire or Democratic donor the rightwing rage wranglers have sicced them on this week. But I would be very surprised if they were applauding the smooth-handed heroes of McArdle, Podhoretz, and McLaughlin any more than the rest of us. And while the tycoons may, by subsidizing their loyal scribes’ misdirection, keep the hordes from descending on them, it won’t keep the world both they and we have to live in from continuing to get worse, and in that world we will seek whatever justice we can get. Fortunately for the gazillionaires, the spectacle will be so vivid they can see it from space!