Opinion Bezos Caps Space Flight With ‘Hasty’ Charity Stunt
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If the tight blue spacesuit, the cowboy hat, and thedidn’t garner enough attention, Jeff Bezos threw in another $200 million to make Tuesday a spectacle befitting the world’s richest man.
Still sporting his space gear, Bezos unveiled a pair of “Courage and Civility” awards, valued at $100 million apiece, which he said he would hand over to two recipients, no strings attached: “No bureaucracy. No committees. They just do what they want.”
The inaugural awardees were chef José Andrés—whose charity, World Central Kitchen, helps feed masses of people following natural disasters—and Van Jones, who has founded a number of nonprofits but is best known as a CNN political commentator.
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Carrying a crew that included company founder Richard Branson, the successful trip marks a significant step toward rocketing paying customers into new heights.More than 46,000 feet above the stark New Mexico desert, a white and silver space plane rocketed toward the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, riding on a fiery plume of burning laughing gas and solid rubber fuel. A few minutes later, the craft’s two pilots and four passengers, including billionaire Richard Branson, floated more than 53 miles above our planet’s surface: high enough to see Earth’s curvature and to slip the bonds of gravity, for a few minutes at least.
Jones was visibly gobsmacked. “You have lifted the ceilings off of the dreams of humanity today,” he said, of Bezos. Andrés said the gift would be “the start of a new chapter” for World Central Kitchen.
But the donations raised eyebrows to some in the philanthropic sector.
“Bezos is reacting and responding to the general trend towards no-strings-attached giving, exemplified by [his ex-wife] MacKenzie Scott, but it seems to be done in a kind of hasty, ad-hoc way,” says Benjamin Soskis, a senior research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.
“There is a strange disconnect between the lengthy rollout and build-up to his space program… and the hasty, afterthought ways in which he’s announcing his philanthropy. That does raise concerns that it’s literally an afterthought to him as well.”
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SpaceShip Two's launch of a privately financed human spaceflight was the first of its kind. Get ready for the Virgin Galactic jingle.Richard Branson is betting that we'll think of Virgin Galactic when we hear Khalid's "New Normal" the next time we find ourselves with a couple hundred thousand dollars to take a 90-minute joy ride to just beyond the edge of space for a few moments of weightlessness and a unique look at the curvature of the Earth from about 50 miles off the terra firma. That's now possible for a very few, but that's how such markets get started to the benefit of all of us eventually.
Scott has received wide praise for distributing more than $8 billion to hundreds of universities, arts programs, and nonprofits over the past two years. Her team, she says, used a “data-driven approach” to“communities facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital.”
Bezos seems to have preferred a meat cleaver tactic over that scalpel approach.
The Amazon founder says he selected Jones and Andrés in part for their civility. “It’s easy to be courageous but also mean,” he said. “Try being courageous and civil. Try being courageous and a unifier.” True words, but curious coming from Bezos. At Amazon, he wasknown to say things like, “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”
The comments also rankled some of Bezos’ media detractors.
“It’s no accident that those with the greatest to lose from real change to the status quo favor civility,” says Anand Giridharadas, whose book Winners Take All excoriated billionaire philanthropy. “Real change involves a loss of power, and for America to progress, Jeff Bezos needs to lose power. And he will always find that uncivil. We should do it anyway.”
As for Uncle Sam, the tax implications of Bezos’ gift depend on how it is structured. (Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) If he hands off the money outright, Bezos could owe millions of dollars in gift taxes, says Harvey Dale, director of the National Center on Philanthropy and the Law. But if he instead simply sets aside $200 million and lets Andrés and Jones disburse it, he would instead earn an income tax deduction.
“I’m guessing that Bezos did not hand off those funds,” Dale said.
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