“Let me tell you about the very rich.
They are different from you and me.“
— F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Yes, they have more money.”
— Ernest Hemingway
You can safely ignore any claims made for science in the aftermath of Jeff Bezos’ minutes-long trip to near space. The billionaires-in-space program is nothing more than a series of vanity projects and maybe, in the best case, which isn’t much of a case at all, the launch of a business to cater to the ultra-rich, meaning neither you nor me. Even Bezos basically admits as much.
I’m not outraged by it, as some seem to be. I’m entirely uninterested in it, except for the symbolism involved. In fact, I would say billionaires in space is among the least outrageous aspects of our gilded age, in which the rich get richer, the megarich get megaricher, the gap between the top 1% or top 10% and everyone else is ever widening, the rates of poverty in the richest country in the history of the world are ever appalling.
The science we should be spending time on is the science of vaccinations and why the flat-earthers among us reject that science. As several have noted, we no longer have a coronavirus pandemic, we have a pandemic for the unvaccinated, who make up nearly all the new cases, the new hospitalizations, the new deaths.
That’s not to say that I oppose space exploration. I’ve been a fan since I was a kid and would welcome more money for NASA, where my late father-in-law worked for decades, including years spent on developing the space shuttle. And let’s be honest. The millions Bezos and Richard Branson have spent on these projects have no impact whatsoever on the problems of world hunger, disease or whatever. We’ve seen trillions of dollars being spent in response to the crippling pandemic. I mean if you’re looking for outrageous spending, Bezos is having a yacht built that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and is so large that it apparently needs its own support yacht for the, uh, helipad.
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It would be nice, though, if Bezos’ Amazon — a much more dangerous symbol of rapacious capitalism than his near-space travel — didn’t spend quite so much money on tax avoidance. It would be even nicer if a major Republican objection to the proposed bipartisan part of Biden’s infrastructure programs weren’t in granting the IRS money to go after tax cheats.
But what does get to me about billionaires in space is the hype surrounding it, the nonstop press coverage given to it, the wide-eyed praise for it. I didn’t watch either launch. But you know what I did watch just the night before the Bezos trip? The Colorado Sun hosted a zoom interview with Sen. Michael Bennet on the expanded child tax credit, which, unlike space tourism, is truly revolutionary in its scope.
If you haven’t heard, Bennet is up for re-election next year, and he has been busily hawking his role in getting the expansion passed into law, which, according to all polls, is overwhelmingly popular with members of both parties. But it’s in law for only one year — having been passed by reconciliation as part of the American Rescue Plan — and Bennet, who has been working on this for years, is pushing hard to get the expansion made permanent.
It is hoped that the program would be part of Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, which may or may not come to pass. The idea is that the program would be guaranteed for five years, by which time it would be hard to undo. You don’t get many votes for child poverty. But not all 50 Democrats are on board for another reconciliation act. Maybe if someone offered to send Joe Manchin into space, he’d come around.
What’s different about this plan is that the money comes in monthly payments — $300 monthly for kids under 6 and $250 monthly for kids under 18 — rather than in a lump sum as under the old child tax credit. And of more importance, parents who make too little to pay federal taxes are also eligible for the money, a significant change and one that will help cut, according to studies, child poverty by as much as 45%.
Some are calling the idea Social Security for kids and not just for those in poverty. A single filer making less $112,500 and joint filers making less than $150,000 are eligible for full credit. The credit decreases by $50 for every additional $1,000 in income. At least one Republican is on board. Mitt Romney has proposed an even more generous plan.
As a country, we are very good at ignoring the fact that, depending on how you score it and whether you include other government programs, either one in seven or one in eight children live in poverty. Nobody wants this, even if many politicians seem unwilling to do enough about it. The cure for poverty is having more money. One cure for the problem of social mobility — which we like to credit as a critical component of the American dream, but one that is sadly being lost — is not growing up poor.
The cost for this program is $110 billion annually. But Bennet says the cost of doing nothing is far greater, and not just the moral cost.
“The poorest population in America are children,” Bennet said in the Sun interview. “Childhood poverty costs our country $1 trillion a year. I think all of us, as Americans, have a reason to not want childhood poverty to be a pertinent feature of our economy or a pertinent feature of our democracy …”
Assuming that number is right, or anywhere close to being right, that’s a hell of a return on your investment. And if cutting childhood poverty by 45% gets you basically halfway there, imagine what cutting it by 100% would do. That’s the kind of money beyond even Jeff Bezos’ wildest dreams.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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