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

Where do you think that $20 million is going?

It's not vanishing down a hole. It's paying salaries. Russian salaries. It's going to scientists, techs, engineers, administrators, guards, secretaries, drivers, machinists (you get the idea) who want to keep feeding their kids, paying for their houses and having a bottle of Vodka for Saturday night.

Do you want all of them to go hungry? You think they should go get jobs sweeping up at the local version of TGI Fridays?

About 15 years ago they put a new "luxury tax" on expensive yachts. The result? Everyone who built yachts went bankrupt, a lot of workers lost their jobs and homes.

Let them spend their money however they want.

Posted by: Richard R | Oct 28, 2006 6:31:09 PM

As a percentage of his total worth, he is probably spending less on himself by doing this than the vast majority of readers spend on vacations or even home computers. To criticize this is utter hypocricy and, perhaps, even jealousy.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 28, 2006 6:39:09 PM

Joe nailed it, Tom Smith. Perhaps you prefer slaves, toiling away for the greater good. As determined by our superiors, which would include Tom Smith, of course.

I think we've seen this play before. It never ends well.

Posted by: MarkD | Oct 28, 2006 6:52:06 PM

Had these space tourists just written a check for $20M to the Russian Space Agency, there would be no criticism. They're philanthropically funding future scientific advances. So when they get 8% of that kicked back on their own thrill ride, everybody's a critic. How much of your NPR donation comes back to you via your tchochke reward? Is it only the scale of the money at stake that's the problem or are all the NPR and other charitable donors who get rewards for donating just as guilty?

Posted by: TM Lutas | Oct 28, 2006 7:01:26 PM

The only selfish thing you can do with money is to store it in your mattress. If you spend it, it goes to the companies you pay and they pay employees who spend money on other things. If you invest in stocks those companies hire people and buy from suppliers. If you depsit money in a bank, the bank lends it to other people who engage in economic activity. If you buy bonds the bond issuers spend the money you lend them.

The only selfish thing you can do with money is to store it in your mattress. The only criticism you can apply to buying luxury goods is that you could get more for value yourself by buying something more practical.

Posted by: 21j31fc9881bl | Oct 28, 2006 7:35:39 PM

Are you even remotely fsmiliar with the words "PRIVATE PROPERTY?" Or the words "NONE OF YOUR DAMN BUSINESS?" It's his money. He made it himself, legally. He paid taxes on it. IT'S HIS F-ING MONEY, for Chrissake.

Do you leftists not understand what it means to OWN SOMETHING? His enjoyment of his property is not contingent on what you want.

He doesn't have to answer to anybody for what he does with it, especially a nobody like you. ANYBODY. EVER. He can pile it up and light it on fire to enjoy the pretty flames.

I swear, stuff like this is what torques me out the most about you leftists. You want to take 50-60% of my marginal income, tell me I am selfish for not willingly paying a bunch more (my "fair share"), then give me $hit when I want to spend the pitiful remnant on WHAT I WANT TO SPEND IT ON.


Posted by: Chester White | Oct 28, 2006 8:18:45 PM

I personally would tend towards spending $20 million on an x-prize for 'the first person to successfully launch me into orbit and get me down again'. That would tend to make it better for development of technology even if it takes longer to have your flight.

But to say that it is wrong to go up with the Russians is to be a selfish puritan.

Posted by: Patrick | Oct 28, 2006 8:31:59 PM

The question is not whether the government should force Simonyi to spend his millions in another way, or even whether we should ask Simonyi to change his personal spending decisions.

Put simply, the question is not, "Should you be allowed to spend gobs of money on yourself?", it is (right there in the title!) "Is there anything wrong with spending gobs of money on yourself?"

Conspicuous consumption by the uber-rich always bring these types of questions to the forefront. And, perhaps, rightfully so.

Posted by: doug | Oct 28, 2006 9:26:17 PM

Gotta say...dude, it's SPACE not an amusement ride. It's not exactly the same as riding on the tilt-a-whirl, know what I mean? God bless him, the money he earned will provide him with an experience only a select few will be able to enjoy for the next few decades until it becomes more accessable. In the meantime, between his taxes paid and the employment opportunities he's provided with his ventures, he's more than done his bit.

Posted by: Tryptich | Oct 28, 2006 9:53:36 PM


Did this blog post somehow imply that you weren't going to get that toy you want? No. It's just a thoughtful discussion of what one ought to do with the resources we are entrusted with. The alternative is to blindly drift through life picking and choosing baubles to collect.

Personally, I think every dime spent on getting more humans into space is a total waste, until such time as there is something useful for them to do while they are up there. But Simonyi has made his own choice, so bon voyage.

Posted by: jon | Oct 28, 2006 9:59:36 PM

The main problem with sticking curious noses and grabby hands into other people's pockets is that you don't know where to stop. Eventually everyone (who's not part of the liberal elite with car and parking privileges, naturally) gets to put on the same clothes and ride the same standing allocations in the same public transit carriages. For example, I know someone called Jaya K. who thinks that luxury cars represent "offensive opulence".

Also, deriding the Soviet system and imposing the same Soviet ideas in the same article is delightfuly ironic.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev | Oct 28, 2006 11:04:28 PM

Well Jon, who "entrusted" you with your wealth?

That notion is collectivist poppycock. Wealth is created first, before it can be consumed, given away or "entrusted" to anyone -- and it is created by the free individual mind. It morally belongs to its creator -- and in a free society, that is the end of the matter. That is the correct answer to Tom's headline, as worded.

That being said, criticizing one's particular choice is not the same as questioning one's right to make that choice, and when Tom's post is tekn as a whole, he is criticizing the particular choice, not the right. On that question, others here have answered that well; catering to the idle rich is a great way to help fund continued space work. We fly cheap and safely today because the rich flew at outlandish expense, in contraptions the FAA would ground instantly, yesterday. Had we done that in the 1960's, we might have gotten to the moon later, but we'd likely still be there now.

To me, there is a bigger question that needs discussion: why is envy or the threat of envy such an overarching thing that it should shape public policy to the point of overriding the right of private property? Why is appeasing the envious morally superior to enjoying the fruits of our labor?

Posted by: Seerak | Oct 28, 2006 11:36:26 PM

kudos on a thoughtfully written piece. The comments seem to have missed your point. You're not say such activities should be forbidden, you're just pointing out that it's a stupid way to spend money. Charles Simonyi is free to spend as he wishes, just it's a shame he's not as civic-minded as some of the other wealthy in the world. And if a blog takes him to task and maybe makes the next hundred millionaire think twice, all the better.

Posted by: Nimnar | Oct 28, 2006 11:48:58 PM

This is a stupid post. Have you ever talked to the man? I'm sorry that you don't share his lifelong desire and dream to one day go into space, but that doesn't give you the right to suggest it's just to show off the money.

If I had exactly 20 million dollars, and no more, I would still spend it on this trip. Every penny I make is going towards my eventual trip to space because that is my life's goal. I'd rather die poor and happy knowing I did the one thing I've wanted to do since I was a child.

It saddens me that you have no dreams or can't understand that other people's dreams are different but no less important to them.

Posted by: red | Oct 29, 2006 1:36:36 AM

He EARNED it, it's HIS.
He can spend it on hookers, cocaine, Ferraris, whatever HE wants.
We being a little judgemental today?
I frankly don't care if he blows it on's HIS MONEY

Posted by: Fred Connolly | Oct 29, 2006 4:07:26 AM