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24 April 2020updated 01 Jul 2021 11:17am

The Batman complex: why billionaires need to stop seeing themselves as superheroes

The human race won’t be saved by space travel, but by far less headline-grabbing interventions.   

By Jonn Elledge

There’s an old tweet, about Batman of all things, that I find I think about a lot. It was sent by the New Republic journalist Matt Ford in 2015, though he may have been riffing off a Wondermark comic dating from two years earlier. It goes like this:

BRUCE WAYNE: How can I rid this city of crime

ALFRED: Mental health care access, economic development, gun reg—

BRUCE: Bring me a cape

The reason this joke stays with me is not because of what it says about Batman  a franchise for which, nerd though I am, I have no particular love. It’s because of what it says about the rich. Bruce Wayne, after all, is a billionaire. And here in the real world, many real billionaires seem to be suffering from a Batman complex of their own.

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Consider Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos (estimated net worth: $140.5 billion). Last year, CBS Evening News asked the world’s richest man, and one of the few billionaires to have actually got richer since the beginning of 2020, why he was ploughing so much of his obscene fortune into his space tech company Blue Origin. He was doing it, he said, for the good of his species. “We humans have to go into space if we are going to continue to have a thriving civilisation… We are in the process of destroying this planet.”

Bezos may well be right about that certainly, the days when it doesn’t feel like civilisation is doomed seem to come less frequently as time goes by — and perhaps he really does see something that is, let’s remember, a business, as a way of saving the planet. But if so, this ostentatious concern for the welfare of literally anybody else is an odd fit with the rest of his career. 

He’s shown relatively little interest in throwing large chunks of money at good causes (he’s the only one of the five richest people in America not to have promised to give half his money away in his lifetime, although to be fair that would leave him with only $70bn to get by on). And Amazon, the company from which he made his fortune, is, shall we say, not noted for its commitment to its staff’s quality of life. So, do we really believe that Blue Origin exists purely because he wants to give something back? 

Bezos isn’t the only billionaire who’s decided that his best shot at immortality is to ape Star Trek. Richard Branson (who, with a net worth of $4.4bn, is utterly broke compared to Bezos) launched Virgin Galactic in 2004, with the aim of developing commercial spaceflight by 2009. The company hasn’t managed it yet, but to be fair the Virgin Group has been very busy asking for government bailouts and suing the NHS. 

Then there’s Elon Musk (estimated net worth: $38bn) who, when not defending himself on defamation charges or trying to persuade people that the hyperloop is a real thing, is working towards the colonisation of Mars. This, he argues, is “the critical thing for maximising the life of humanity [and] how long will our civilization last”.

Even though I’ve never quite got over the realisation that we’re almost certainly stuck in this solar system (stupid, annoying laws of physics), I am open to the idea that humanity’s salvation lies in the stars. And given that the governmental space race has slowed down a bit these last few decades, achieving that may well require some assistance from the private sector.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice that ploughing money into space tech isn’t just a good way of contributing to the salvation of humanity. It’s a way of doing that while also potentially carving your name into the history books – a more ambitious form of whacking your name on a concert hall or building the tallest skyscraper. And sending stuff into space is just a lot cooler than, say, ensuring a safe working environment, isn’t it?

There are many other ways a billionaire who wanted to improve the lot of humanity could make a contribution. They could plough money into basic research, or education, or fighting climate change, or a hundred other philanthropic causes. (Many do, of course – although as Felix Salmon wrote in a devastating blog in 2012, a depressing number of them don’t do it very well.) 

More prosaically, they could cheerfully and enthusiastically pay their taxes, so that governments have the money to do basic research, fight climate change and so on. Or, if they really wanted to show what radical free thinkers they are, those who own vast companies could ensure that their staff are safe and financially secure, even if that ate into dividends. That would probably make the world better, too.

Then again, effecting change through those means is long, hard, and most off-puttingly of all, invisible. And the stories we tell each other focus more on individual heroism than they do on complex and undramatic structural factors. There is a reason that Batman is not a comic about mental health access and gun control.

And so, when billionaires look to secure their place in the history books or amass an army of weirdly loyal fans, they often ignore effective but boring interventions in favour of exciting but dubious ones like space tech. In other words, they reach for their cape.

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