Is there a more perfect symbol of the excesses of global capitalism than Charles Simonyi’s 13-day joyride into outer space? Simonyi, a Hungarian-American software programmer who made his fortune at Xerox and Microsoft before launching his own start-up, paid $20 million to be escorted to the Kazakh steppes, packed into a Russian Soyuz rocket and blasted towards the international space station. En route, he’ll enjoy a meal of roasted quail, duck breast confit with capers, shredded chicken parmentier and rice pudding with candied fruit — all carefully selected by his girlfriend, Martha Stewart. (Martha, whatever happened to astronaut ice cream and Tang?) No word yet on the threadcount of his sheets or if there’s 24-hour concierge service in orbit.
The whole saga is Dickens for the new millennium, but without the other half. So it’s up to us scolds at The Nation to point out the obvious. Simonyi might have spent his money fighting AIDS, or building housing for Hurricane Katrina survivors, or providing clean water to developing nations, or mosquito netting and medicine for malaria patients, or musical instruments for needy, photogenic, musically-gifted inner city school children or…well, depressingly, the list goes on and on. But picking on the follies of the rich is easy, and in this case, not particularly fun. Just think of the carbon footprint a Soyuz rocket leaves!
But the next time the bards of capitalism sing the praises of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and the outstanding generosity of the mega-rich in the age of extreme wealth (and extreme poverty), I’ll trot out Charles Simonyi’s space odyssey as counter-example.
Indeed, Simonyi’s spending habits are a window into how the world’s wealthiest citizens consume and contribute. Worth about $1 billion, Simonyi’s no Scrooge McDuck. He’s endowed a chair at Oxford and funded the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. In 2003, Simonyi finished 23rd in the Slate 60, the annual ranking of largest American charitable contributions, when he gave $47 million to start the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences. But for each act of noblesse oblige, there’s an extravagance. In Simonyi’s case, not only is he the 5th space tourist ever, he also owns the world’s 39th largest yacht, which is so big that one could, as Power and Motoryacht Magazine tell us, “easily mistake her for a military vessel.”
Simonyi’s 2003 donation represents less than 5 percent of his net worth. According to Gregg Easterbrook’s survey of billionaire philanthropy, this puts Simonyi well behind Buffett, who donated the vast majority of his fortune, and Bill Gates, who’s given away about 1/3 of his. But Simonyi fares better in comparison to most billionaires, who on average contribute slightly more than 1 percent of their net worth. As Easterbrook points out, that rate is only marginally better than Americans as a whole, who annually give away about 0.5 percent of their net worth. And it pales in comparison to the 78 percent that Andrew Carnegie gave away in his lifetime.
As the philosopher Peter Singer pointed out in an article for the New York Times, if the rich and superrich gave away at morally responsible and entirely reasonable rates (say, 33 percent of earnings for those in the top .01 percent and sliding downward), wealthy Americans could generate $808 billion annually for global development — six times more than what the UN estimates it needs to meet its Millennium Development Goals and 16 times more than the shortfall between what’s needed and what donor nations currently contribute.
But that might mean giving up duck confit in outer space.