In light of very recent trips to space made by some of the wealthiest people in the world (who happen to be business tycoons) and the reactions to it, a question swirled in my mind: What makes a good corporate citizen? Hear me out. This post might not be what you initially thought it was when you clicked.
Context (Because there’s a lot to unpack here)
The TL;DR of this section for people who want to skip over this long contextual section entirely:
The recent billionaire space flights weren’t paid for with taxpayer money at all. They were paid for through a combination of personal means and the open market.
I think there are 3 main complex reasons people reacted negatively to the recent space flights…
People don’t like the fact that wealthy people are flashing their wealth on space flights while may average people struggle to make ends meet.
The compensation and quality of life of employees to the companies of multibillionaires is getting negative national attention on a constant basis lately.
The longstanding philosophical question remains of whether or not individuals should be allowed to amass as much wealth as the mega-rich in the U.S. have attained.
But if you want to read along with my train of thought in referenced detail below…
I had heard about how these companies were/are funded, but I wanted to confirm it from a reliable resource, and a quick search on Google brought me to recent Fortune Magazine articles about both companies.
According to Fortune, “Branson’s space company [Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (SPCE)] is backed by huge institutions, like an Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund,” on top of being publicly traded (full disclosure, I own shares of SPCE).
And Fortune also says that former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has “funded his space company, Blue Origin, with at least $5.5 billion of his own money […].” That same article goes on to clarify that “Blue Origin—the space company Bezos founded in 2000—is [a] private[ly held company that is not traded on the stock market], if not secretive. Unlike rival Virgin Galactic, it doesn’t publish any filings that document its financial state or the risks to the company.”
Both articles are worth reading if you want to know more about each company.
I bring up that context because, in my eyes, it’s a key part as to whether or not you were righteously angry about two billionaires going into space recently — for multiple reasons.
Some, like U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, have argued things related to taxes and the wealthy paying their fair share. She recently tweeted that if the “richest guy on Earth can launch himself into space while over half the country lives paycheck to paycheck, nearly 43 million are saddled with student debt, and child care costs force millions out of work. He can afford to pitch in so everyone else gets a chance.”
This was a callback to news from a recent ProPublica report, based on a bunch of IRS information the news outlet obtained, that spilled that in 2007 and 2011 “Jeff Bezos, then a multibillionaire and now the world’s richest man, did not pay a penny in federal income taxes.” The same article also says that Elon Musk (another multibillionaire and currently the second wealthiest man in the world, according to Forbes) achieved the same feat in 2018.
So, that’s one reason. You have two very wealthy people very publicly, dare I say, flashing personal space projects while many people in the U.S. deal with financial hardship. Plus, come to factually find out (something that many of us already knew), some of the “rich bastards” don’t pay taxes. (I have thoughts on this, these are not my thoughts – this is more like a statement of facts.)
Another reason, I would imagine, has a lot to do with the money companies and the billionaires they create keep making each year vs. the compensation and quality of life of their workers. The impact the wealthy could have on the world should they choose to use their money for “good” (which is subjective) purposes – and not grand personal projects that, at the moment, seem to only serve as monuments to their legacy – is huge. (I don’t personally think these things are just monuments to their legacy, I think they’re chasing money and doing something they’ve always dreamed of – but the optics are there.) I think I’ve brought this article up before somewhere on this site, but Jeff Bezos’ wealth shown to scale is RIDICULOUS and could be used to cure a lot of societal ills (reminder: you have to “scroll right” on the site linked to in this sentence).
A great deal of the employees of the wealthiest don’t appear to be happy (if you poke through the headline news) or in sustainable positions at their companies.
For example, there are numerous reports, like this one, of Amazon warehouse workers not working in the greatest conditions. Those factors have led to things like strikes and a constant looming “threat” of a labor union (which hasn’t yet materialized) at certain Amazon warehouse facilities.
And then you come across articles talking about what it’s like to work insane hours and in bad conditions at companies like Tesla; followed by the fact that many employees across the nation are just quitting their job coming out of COVID lockdowns because of bad pay and treatment in their industries. And airline companies, like Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, haven’t been immune to that (on top of the fact that the industry had massive layoffs and furloughs at the height of the pandemic).
As I said, a lot of things are coming to a head with people being upset about the space flights already, but then you add the age-old question (which is the final reason in my eyes) of: Should any single individual be allowed to amass as much concentrated wealth as the ultra-rich have attained in the U.S.?
Like I said – a lot. But now that we all have that context, back to my original question…
Money Changes Things (Especially Reactions)
When I originally saw reactions to the recent space flights of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, I thought one thing: It’s their money, let them spend it how they want.
Seriously. I don’t feel like they owe anyone anything beyond what their employees have agreed to as compensation and benefits for their employment, etc., etc., etc. I always think about how I would feel if someone told me how to spend my money, and I don’t like that — so I afford everyone the same courtesy, even the mega-rich.
But… Is this different?
Yes, and no.
On a very personal level – no, it’s not any different, and if Bezos wants to spend a bunch of HIS OWN money to go to space instead of helping out anyone in need – let him.
But, on a very different “Hidden Rules of Society” type of level (which I apparently didn’t really remotely grasp until my post yesterday) – yes, it is different because of one societal concept: Noblesse Oblige.
For those unfamiliar with the term (and to make sure we’re all working from the same definition), Oxford says…
A lengthier explanation of the root of the term from Wikipediastates, “Noblesse oblige is a French expression from the times when the English nobility spoke French and maintains in English the meaning that nobility extends beyond mere entitlement and requires people who hold such status to fulfill social responsibilities.”
The last key thing I want to point out here is that it has to do with the noble class (I promise this is going somewhere), so I want to drop another key definition from Wikipedia…
Look, America doesn’t have royalty. We just don’t. There are no kings and queens although we definitely treat some people that way. But… I do think that we have some VERY close surrogates with different names. I think America’s noble class includes:
Wealthy People in General
(And at the lowest level) Well-paid Corporate Employees
Yep, in that last bullet point – I have to acknowledge that people fortunate enough to land a well-paying job in Corporate America (and understand, I’m talking people making about $200K a year or more these days) are better off than a great deal of their fellow U.S. citizens. So, they are – in a way – holders of “more acknowledged privilege and higher social status than most other classes.”
So, What Makes a Good Corporate Citizen?
(This post isn’t what you expected, is it?)
I could rattle off a list of things “good corporate citizens” can do… Volunteer. Mentor others. Make donations. Use your social influence for good.
Platitude. Platitude. Platitude.
Virtue signal. Virtue signal. Virtue signal.
But I really do think it’s all summed up in Noblesse Oblige.
There is an expectation and trust from society toward the wealthy that it is “the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged.” When that doesn’t happen, the less privileged in society will begin to revolt against the system (which I think we’re seeing hints of now in the U.S. – and can be summed up by the “let them eat cake” situation famously attributed to Marie-Antoinette during the time of the French Revolution).
Whether the people in the “U.S. Nobility” I mentioned in the previous section signed up for that obligation or not, the secret rule is there.
And the Branson/Bezos Billionaire space flights spat in the face of that rule. They broke the unspoken role, in a lot of ways, of a Mega-wealthy Corporate Citizen (who, again, is included in that Nobility structure above) to exercise Noblesse Oblige.
So, naturally – people were pissed.
I am not saying that EVERYTHING someone of high means does has to factor in those less fortunate, but read the room! It isn’t the best look to spend tons of money (in the magnitude of billions), yours or not, on something that doesn’t benefit the masses in a very apparent way without some explanation. It just looks bad, sounds bad… is bad? To do that when others are facing the times many Americans are dealing with right now.
Do I feel like there should be a HUGE dose of personal responsibility for a lot of people when it comes to how they are in the position they’re in to be dealing with those financial hardships? Yes. And if you want to have that talk with me – we can – or I’ll write about it in a different blog post one day – but not this one and not today.
All of that aside, though — a wealthy person’s role and social obligation, and in the context of this post – a corporate citizen’s role – is to do things with those less fortunate in mind. There is an unspoken balance there.
Many people loathe the ultra-wealthy now because of what appears to be a blatant lack of concern for those less fortunate (by some, not all) so that they can instead pursue personal profit and their vices.
Be a good corporate citizen, regardless of your current wealth, by getting comfortable with the concept of Noblesse Oblige. Especially as you go higher and higher in your career.
It is nothing new, but Income Inequality is real. Do not get out of touch with that reality just because you manage to make money. Noblesse Oblige.
That said, I leave you with a lighter examination of the subject from years ago courtesy of John Oliver (keep in mind that these numbers are from 2014)…