The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Is there anything wrong with spending gobs of money on yourself?
Tom Smith

PC pioneer and Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi is apparently going to be the 5th tourist in space, a joyride that will set him back $20 million or so.  If you would like to make such a trip, you can arrange it here.

As readers of this blog know, I am not particularly prone to liberal guilt, but I really wonder about the morality of dropping $20 million so you can play astronaut.  For practically nothing, you can build a play space ship in your back yard out of old boxes and duct tape, have a space adventure, and still sleep in your own bed. 

I also understand that space exploration may have great promise, though here I also think a lot of wishful thinking tends to go on by people who think if they get up there, maybe somehow they can be as sexually active as Robert Heinlein's heros are.  But I don't think our dreams are any more likely to come true in space than they are here, however far over the rainbow it may be.  And if some entrepreneur figures out space offers some great commercial opportunity, such as GPS or satellite phones, I'm all for that too. 

What I do question is splurging so grotesquely on a fantasy adventure.  But then I wonder, who am I to talk, really?  I have splurged on family and personal adventures to an extent I could afford probably less than space tourists can afford their $20 millions.  On the other hand, if we let inconsistency stop us from pointing out the flaws in others' behavior, we would have to remain silent far more than I have any intention of being. 

So, consider all the things a space tourists could do with $20 million.  If used for charitable purposes, it would be deductible, so call it more like $30 million.  That is a lot of kids to send to college, even more to escape the gravitation of rotten public schools, and thousands of kids you could yank out of the holes they live in in Lima or Rio.  You also have to wonder, suppose you could be a space tourist, but you could not tell anybody you had done it.  It would remain a secret.  Would any of these zillionaires still do it, for $20 million?  Or would it then only be worth $5 or $1 million?  A lot of it seems to be the most infantile kind of showing off your wealth.  What my lovely wife Jeanne would call tacky, very tacky.  The whole point is to show off your wealth only in the most subtle ways, so that you preserve a kind of deniability that you are showing off.  This business of, look at me, I'm an astronaut, is of a piece with those dreadful Christmas letters, the kind, I mean, which are designed not to inspire the warm, fuzzy feelings of the season, but the bitter tang of envy, that your family is not just back from skiing at Staad, kayaking in Nepal, or catching all the latest shows in the West End.  In truth, how many of us, if due to a faulty O-ring or something, Simonyi were sucked out into space, to spend the next thousand years or so orbiting the earth, could avoid yukking it up, just a little? 

There are many expensive things I don't find morally objectionable.  Private aviation is fine because the airlines treat us like dogs, and many of one's fellow passengers deserve little better.  So that's fine.  Good food and wine is celebrated in the Bible, supports important human arts, and fights depression. I approve them.  Nice clothes, ditto, except for the Bible part.  Anyone who thinks you should not spend money on books is a philistine, notoriously unpopular in the Bible.  And of course, creating wealth through enterprise is a positive good.  Perhaps space tourism falls into this latter category, but only ambiguously so.  The space station is a pile of junk that probably diverts more from real progress in space than it contributes.  The Russians who run this operation are probably epiphenomena of that rapidly decaying nightmare empire.  It's a bit like paying $20 million to ride in a Nazi flying saucer.  Cool, but those faded SS symbols would be kinda creepy.

Don't get me wrong.  I would love to be a billionaire.  I think it would be swell.  I would get up early, log on, and just stare at all those big, constantly changing numbers in my very diversified accounts, until I got bored.  But if I were to drop $20 million on an amusement ride, I would keep it a secret.  I would not want everybody to know I was that selfish.

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Tom Smith


If I had billions, I would never build myself Versailles, because the thought of not being able to find my glasses screwdriver because I have 28 bathrooms to look in. But space? Hell yeah. Because it's experiencing something almost no one can do now-- but that I suspect will be very common for people being born right now. And if you want a social good, it helps keep a dream alive at a historical point where it's been smothered by bureaucracy. Though obviously there would be better X-Prizeish ways to do that.

That said, I'm not sure I think $20 million is all that much money any more. There are a lot of people with nine figures, and they're buying houses, jets and paintings that cost that much. Movie stars get that much for one movie. (And a movie that costs that much is "low budget.") Yeah, take the whole family on Soyuz and it adds up but, $20 million? You can't take it with you, but you can spend it on getting a preview.

Posted by: Mgmax, le Corbeau | Oct 28, 2006 5:01:00 PM

$20 million is a significant chunk of change for the Russian space program. That money is indeed put to good use by helping keep a second Earthport open instead of having it fall further into disrepair.

Yes, from one vantagepoint it's "all about the rich guy", but from another it's infusing hard dollars into a program that needs it. His (or her) $20m equates out to about 13000kgs of material sent to orbit.


Posted by: Jason Coleman | Oct 28, 2006 5:06:37 PM

This guy is a billionair because he worked on MSWord and MSExcel. What are those, you may ask (as you climb out from under that rock)? Well, those are two software applications that are 2nd rate knockoffs of WordPerfect and of Lotus123. But the former had the advantage of being bundled with Bill's operating system, the latter were only the better products with an inferior non-monopoly distribution system.

Posted by: Hank | Oct 28, 2006 5:13:12 PM

I'm not really sure it's any of our business how Simonyi spends his money, unless he makes some kind of moral or political claim that we should spend our money (or be taxed) in a certain way.

Every dollar we spend on anything could be spent on something else, and it could be spent on charity. That's what we call an economic principle (kind of like remedial economics, actually). It's up to the spender how it gets spent, not an observer.

For observers who believe themselves competent to comment on how other people spend their money, may I simply suggest that you take care of your own money, and let them take care of theirs. Be as generous with your own money as you want them to be with theirs.

I care more about how Teddy Kennedy spends his money than this fellow, because Teddy takes political/moral positions in favor of taxing money from us to assuage his "liberal guilt" or his moral stands. When Mr. Simonyi starts talking like Teddy Kennedy, I'll care. 'Til then, I'll pay attention to my own spending. I recommend the same to others.

Posted by: Ed Falkner | Oct 28, 2006 5:29:12 PM

He made his money, he paid his taxes, what he does with what's left is his business. As in none of my business. Personally, if I had a few billion dollars in the kitty, I wouldn't stop at the space station - I'd draw down a billion or so and go to the moon.

Posted by: Steven | Oct 28, 2006 5:34:37 PM

Early adopters always pay a premium, they are the grease of development and iterations.


Posted by: thedaddy | Oct 28, 2006 5:46:16 PM

My feeling is that that $20 million supports the space program. Many feel that the space program isn't worthwhile--that all that money is basically wasted.

I play the lottery. One buck twice a week. Sounds stupid considering I'll probably never win. However, that money provides me with dreams--lots of dreams that bring me lots of smiles.

That's what the space program is all about--dreams, and people are desparately in need of dreams that make them smile.

Every dollar spent on the space program provides a reason to smile. To me, that's cheap for the price.

Posted by: Lornkanaga | Oct 28, 2006 5:49:17 PM

One very bothersome thing about a typical morality-of-spending-money argument is that it assumes the money just vanishes into a furnace, never to be seen again. This completely ignores the fan-out effect that occurs in employment and economic activity when expensive things are purchased.

The next bothersome thing is that the people found framing up that kind of argument are usually as rich as a king by comparison to someone who is truly lacking in daily provision -- and ought to focus on enjoying managing what they've got, rather than envying and planning how to manage what someone else has got.

Posted by: anony-mouse | Oct 28, 2006 6:01:31 PM

I actually think that these folks spending their gobs of money is better, in a collective-good sense, than anything they could do with it by charitable donation. That hojillionaires spend this sort of money indicates to potential entrepreneurs and their backers that there is a market for space tourism. If the rest of us non-millionaire schmoes ever want to get into space, early development is going to have to be underwritten by really rich early adopters who are willing to drop silly sums on it and not feel too bad about it...

Posted by: TWAndrews | Oct 28, 2006 6:04:08 PM

Is there anything wrong with spending gobs of money on yourself?"

No, but that may be the wrong question. The right question might be, "Are there more personally gratifying and satisfying ways to spend large sums?" For an answer (well, an opinion) ask any philanthropist or Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

There's a Biblical concept that all things, even ill-gotten things, eventually come back to the service of God. In the case of the Rockefellers, this was quite literally true (a good chunk of Rocky's change found its way into the Riverside Church). Many wealthy people's money finds its way into various foundations.

At the same time, TWAndrews, above, is quite right in suggesting the overstated impact of charitable giving. Often, depressingly little money makes its way to charities' purported cause. (FYI, the world's most efficient charity by most measures is the Salvation Army.) Let's point out that $20 million poured into a space effort no doubt employs many scientists, engineers, craftsmen, and other skilled workers who this country certainly wants to retain (and who rarely are the recipients of charity dollars).

Posted by: Mister Snitch! | Oct 28, 2006 6:21:58 PM