Often, we hear from people who have journeyed to space that they experience feeling overcome by a greater sense of sensitivity and deeper understanding of humanity while contemplating the beauty of the Earth from afar. It appears space didn’t exactly have that effect on Jeff Bezos.
At a news conference on Tuesday after his trip some 60 miles into the sky aboard a rocket built by his private space company, Bezos displayed quite the tin ear when discussing how he was able to pay for the fulfillment of his childhood dream.
"I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this," the richest man on the planet said of his 11-minute joy ride.
"Seriously, for every Amazon customer out there and every Amazon employee, thank you from the bottom of my heart very much. It's very appreciated," he continued.
While his in-person audience laughed, his remarks were met with jeers online. Talking heads ripped Bezos’ flippant remarks about his notoriously mistreated employees funding the trip as “supervillainesque.”
There are a few reasons why Bezos’ remarks rubbed so many people — including me — the wrong way.
Bezos’s entire venture was controversial to begin with. So much of the billionaire space race entails unfathomably wealthy titans of industry spitballing about how to escape the planet instead of tackling the urgent and irreversible threats to the people living on it.
While Bezos has framed his rocket company, Blue Origin, as driven by a broader mission of interplanetary living, the current operation he’s kicking off is the business of suborbital space tourism — a new and costly leisure activity that will almost exclusively be available to the obscenely rich. For Tuesday’s flight, Bezos had initially auctioned off one seat for $28 million; that person had a “scheduling conflict” and was then replaced by the 18-year-old son of a CEO of a private equity firm.
But Bezos took things to a new level when he thanked his employees at Amazon, so many of whom he infamously exploited, for making his questionable venture possible. Reports over the years have said Amazon aggressively surveils its drivers and warehouse workers using cutting-edge technology; forces them to work in unsafe working conditions; places them on such demanding schedules that they’re forced to urinate and defecate in water bottles and bags during their shifts; and illegally cracks down on their rights to form unions. (Bezos has defended Amazon’s treatment of its workers and said reports about its employees’ treatment are inaccurate.)
The company treats its hourly associates so poorly that before the pandemic it had an astonishing turnover rate of 150 percent per year — nearly twice that of the retail and logistics industries. If Bezos wants to show gratitude to his employees, he should treat them like humans.
While less obviously scandalous, it was also disconcerting to hear Bezos thanking his Amazon customers. As MSNBC columnist Talia Lavin recently argued, while 20th century space exploration was deeply flawed for a whole host of reasons, there was something civically honorable about the fact that it was “funded and created by our government, an achievement held in common by the masses.” Theoretically it was subject to at least some democratic input.
Blue Origin, by contrast, is a shadowy organization fueled by the whims of a monopolistic billionaire who demonstrates spite for the fiscal health of the nation by dodging enormous amounts of taxes year after year. While Bezos’ rocket company could theoretically aid long-term space exploration efforts — experts tell me that while the company is extremely secretive, there are significant benefits to developing cheap reusable rockets — the spirit of this project seems to lack even the veneer of national input, pride or benefits that 20th century projects held, however tenuously.
Ultimately, this feels like a project that’s meant to polarize the nation, not unite it: Bezos’ tax dodging and worker exploitation is subsidizing a personal passion project for ultra-elites who want to spend their spare time getting as far away as possible from the rest of us.
But there is a potential upside to Bezos and his ilk “saying the quiet part loud”: Should they continue to be so brash, they may succeed in helping inspire a movement that could rein in their power.