The Stupidest Thing Uttered by a Smart Man

I don’t know Jeff Bezos. Never met him. Nevertheless, not long after his darling Amazon reached at $1 trillion valuation, I’m nominating one of his remarks for The Stupidest Thing Uttered by a Smart Guy.

The list of candidates for this title is both endless and growing. But context helps Jeff’s case. Real earnings are in the midst of a year’s long stall. Bernie Sanders among others has shined a light on the pay rates and working conditions at Amazon. The world is on fire. Yet, in an interview with Business Insider, Jeff — who as the richest man in the world sits upon a personal fortune north of $100 billion — comes up with this beauty about his personal wealth:

The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.

No doubt social media took Bezos to task for this inanity. Hopefully he regrets every word of it, and more importantly every step of his reasoning and his conclusion.

But even if that is the case (and I doubt it is), we can’t let this slide – not even because Jeff owns the Washington Post, has subsequently set up a $2 billion fund for preschool education, and raised the minimum wage at Amazon.

The economy is the movement of money. That money accumulates in some areas over others. In many cases it does so honestly, but too often it happens cruelly and sometimes illegally. The economy is the sum of conscious efforts and power struggles, but also unconscious decisions. It is luck and logic and irrationality all in one, and as such it is a fascinating picture of human psychology.

One small part of that is on full display in Jeff’s incredible statement. It is an example of someone who has accumulated a lot of money assuming that because they have done so they know best how to spend it.

We can talk about rights, and that Bezos can spend his money however he likes, but that’s not the point. The point is that the logic doesn’t follow. Worse, his intentions are a mess precisely because he thinks they’re for everyone’s good.

In this sense, Bezos is symptomatic of a bigger problem highlighted in the new book Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas. In his review, Joseph Stiglitz notes that “The money and time the MarketWorlders spend fixing the edges of our fraying social order could be used to push for real change.”

We’ve noted here before other myopic examples of this, including Elon Musk’s effort to go to Mars. Together they’re just like the billionaires that Daniel Rushkoff wrote about earlier this year: insular smart guys who have already given up on Earth and on humanity, and who are looking for a way to protect what they have. But Bezos tops it when you consider what he could do.

Our oceans are the lungs of the planet. They’re largely undiscovered, and yet the pillaging continues unabated at a pace that has us on a doomsday track. Small-minded miners and oil explorers are eager to ramp up the carnage. Bezos could stop that threat — or a big part of it — in its tracks by funneling his space money into ocean preserves. He could even pay the miners to stay home – or better yet to patrol the protected areas.

Looking landward, the esteemed entomologist E.O. Wilson has outlined a plan to halt and prevent further plant and animal extinctions by closing off half the planet to people and development. It’s a startling idea, but at least worth a try given the way we’ve dropped the ball as stewards of the Earth. Bezos could make a dent in the down payment, and encourage others — including governments — to do the same.

Instead, Bezos is dead set on burning up his money looking for a new planet to start fresh. The hubris involved would choke a million horses, but what’s astonishing is the lack of imagination. Just think if in the next 1,000 years we find anything in our galactic neighborhood like this:

or this:

It would blow our minds.

And yet this planet, our current and only home, is covered with millions of these and millions of other wonderful, mysterious, and undiscovered life forms.

A guy who has figured out a way to accumulate billions of dollars figures the best way to spend them is in pursuit of a barren wasteland in space.