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Rich Men; Big Ideas
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Crazy diamonds

Originally published by The Economist [link] on April 30, 2016

YURI MILNER, a Russian internet billionaire, wants to answer the great existential question: “Are we alone in the universe?” He has already launched a project to listen for signals from outer space, using two of the world’s biggest radio telescopes. This month he also unveiled plans to send an armada of tiny spaceships, powered by laser beams and equipped with all sorts of sensors, to Alpha Centauri, 40 trillion kilometres away.

Sir Richard Branson, the boss of the Virgin Group, and Elon Musk, the entrepreneur running Tesla, a car company, have both founded space ventures, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. Sir Richard wants to turn space tourism into an industry; Mr Musk lists his ultimate goal as “enabling people to live on other planets”. Once upon a time the space race was driven by the competition between capitalism and communism. Now it is driven by the competition between individual capitalists.

Space is not the only frontier that billionaires want to conquer. Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, hopes to give meat a makeover by growing it from stem cells. Mr Musk desires to “reinvent” railways by shooting passengers down hermetically sealed tubes. Tycoons are particularly keen on schemes to cheat the grim reaper. Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, proclaims that “The great unfinished task of the modern world is to turn death from a fact of life to a problem to be solved.” Larry Ellison, the chairman of Oracle, has said: “Death never made any sense to me. How can a person be there and then just vanish?” Both men have invested money in various ventures designed to come up with ways of reversing ageing. Dmitry Itskov, one of the pioneers of the Russian internet, says that his goal is to live to 10,000.

History is full of examples of rich men with big ideas. The merchant princes who founded enterprises such as the London Company in the 17th century wanted to build bustling empires across the seas. Howard Hughes spent the 1930s testing innovative aircraft and setting aeronautical records, almost killing himself in the process, and founded a medical clinic whose goals included discovering “the genesis of life itself”. But the closest parallel with what is happening today is the gilded age in America.

The late-19th and early-20th centuries saw gigantic concentrations of wealth in the hands of people who created their own companies. Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller held the majority of shares in their companies just as the founders of Facebook and Google hold controlling shares in theirs. The political system was incapable of dealing with the pace of change: in America it was paralysed by gridlock and complacency, and in Europe it was overwhelmed by animal passions. Entrepreneurs, flush with money from new technologies, felt duty-bound to step in, either to deal with problems that politicians were unable to confront or to clean up after their failures. Today’s state may be much bigger, but its shortcomings are no less glaring.

Back then, numerous industrialists, including William Lever in Britain, J.N. Tata in India and Milton Hershey in America, founded company towns that were intended, at a minimum, to combat the evils of industrial civilisation and, on occasion, to create a new kind of human being. Carnegie, a steel baron, and Alfred Nobel, a dynamite tycoon, both became obsessed by the idea of abolishing war for ever. Henry Ford launched a succession of ambitious schemes for improving the world, including eliminating cows, which he couldn’t abide. In 1915 he took a ship of leading business people and peace activists to Europe to try to end the first world war and “get those boys out of the trenches”. “Great War to end Christmas day,” read a New York Times headline; “Ford to stop it.” In 1928 he tried to recreate an American factory town in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.

Fashions change. None of today’s billionaires spends serious money on universal peace. But the psychology of the very rich seems the same. Reforming billionaires down the ages display the same bizarre mix of good and bad qualities—of grandiosity and problem-solving genius, naivety and fresh thinking, self-importance and altruism.

There is a lot of ego involved—the minted are competing with each other to produce the most eye-catching schemes, much as they vie to run the most successful businesses. That helps to explain why the billionaire space race has escalated from sending rockets into orbit to sending spaceships to Alpha Centauri. There is also a lot of misdirected effort. The gift of $100m by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, has not dramatically improved Newark’s schools. Ford’s Amazonian experiment crumbled into ruins as employees balked at some of his rules, which included serving only American food and compulsory square-dancing. His voyage to end the first world war descended into farce: the press re-christened his vessel “the ship of fools” and the Norwegians diagnosed him as suffering from Stormannsgalskap, or the “madness of great men”.

Big cheques, bigger dreams

Yet the madness does far more good than harm. Deep-pocketed entrepreneurs not only add to the number of moonshot projects, literal or metaphorical, they also introduce fresh thinking. Mr Milner’s ideas for contacting aliens challenge some of the unexamined assumptions of America’s space bureaucracy by using tiny spaceships and laser beams rather than larger craft and rocket fuel. The most talented billionaires have a genius for combining grand ideas with intense pragmatism; the Gates Foundation is pursuing its aim of abolishing polio and malaria with a business-like attention to detail. And sometimes grandiose ideas can do good even without achieving their ultimate goals: the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Nobel peace prize have improved the world even if they haven’t abolished war. You cannot shake up the world without treating what most people regard as facts of life as “problems to be solved”.