Billionaires slipped the surly bonds of Earth, but couldn’t escape its problems

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If Bezos and co. wanted to “[touch] the face of God,” they could have kept themselves and their billions on solid ground, and devoted it to Her creation on Earth.

Billionaire space cowboys Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have rightfully been taking some flack for sub-orbital jaunts earlier this month that garnered plenty of headlines but little in the way of actual scientific advancement, apart from trying to normalize the idea of routine spaceflight for other, exceptionally rich people.

With all the power of the rockets that propelled them and their titanic egos into the wild blue yonder, social media went incandescent with criticism, arguing persuasively that Bezos and Branson could have used their money to address a sprawling multitude of problems, from climate change to income inequality, back here on Earth.

“Jeff Bezos is going into space tomorrow. Yesterday, on earth, I saw a man search for food in a trash can,” the critic Charles Preston observed on Twitter.

Warren Gunnels, a top aide to U.S. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., piled on, tartly noting that “class warfare is Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson becoming $250 billion richer during the pandemic, paying a lower tax rate than a nurse and racing to outer space while the planet burns and millions go without healthcare, housing and food.”

Others wryly noted that should Bezos, the former Amazon chief, need to relieve himself while rocketing through the skies, he could always use the same plastic bottles that his drivers have said they use as they try to meet punishing delivery schedules.

Bezos, at least, had the presence of mind to observe that his critics were onto something, conceding that they were “largely right,” CNBC and other outlets reported.

“We have to do both,” he said. “We have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those and we also need to look to the future, we’ve always done that as a species and as a civilization. We have to do both.”

On one level, Bezos was right. There always has been a fundamental tension between humankind’s interstellar ambitions, which tend to be massively expensive, and the feeling that money could be better used to ameliorate more terrestrial concerns.

“I am not opposed to climbing mountains because they’re there, or pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but I would urge the Trump Administration to consider putting its scientific efforts into problems closer to home (climate change? Or, say, clean water in Flint?) before our plan to colonize the moon turns into a plan to escape to it.” Ana Marie Cox wrote in 2018 as the former president briefly floated the idea of lunar colonization before the Earth was plunged into the worst public health crisis in a century.

There is undoubtedly a case to be made for the utility of spaceflight of advancing the cause of human knowledge. The digital flight controls pioneered by the Apollo program is “now integral to airliners and is even found in most cars,” according to NASA, which, admittedly, has something to gain by touting the earthbound benefits of space flight.

Earthrise, the photo by NASA astronaut William Anders (Image via NASA).

Writing in Foreign Policy in 2019, Greg Autry reminded readers of the now legendary image of the Earth captured by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders in 1968: A big, blue marble looking alone and so very vulnerable in the vast void of space.  That photo, dubbed “Earthrise,” has inspired ever since.

“Today conservationists and other critics are more likely to see space programs as militaristic splurges that squander billions of dollars better applied to solving problems on Earth,” Autry wrote. “These well-meaning complaints are misguided, however. Earth’s problems—most urgently, climate change—can be solved only from space. That’s where the tools and data already being used to tackle these issues were forged and where the solutions of the future will be too.”

Knowledge — and money — deployed in the service of the greater good is almost always welcome. And I remain as much an evangelist for the exploration of interstellar space as anyone else. I agree with the premise that there is a mandate to explore — while gleaning the knowledge that comes along with it.

But in the case of the billionaire space race, there was almost no sense that this was, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, one giant step for humankind.

Rather, it was about puffing the egos of spectacularly wealthy men, who despite all the hoopla, never made it that far into space in any event, with negligible scientific benefit.

Bezos and Branson, slipped the surly bonds of earth, as the poet John Gillespie Magee once wrote. But they returned to a planet just as riven by inequality, war, a still raging pandemic, and the crisis of climate change.

I’d suggest that if they were looking, as Magee also wrote, to “[touch] the face of God,” they could have kept themselves  — and their billions — on solid ground, and devoted it to Her creation on Earth.

John Micek is the editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which first published this essay.

State Democrats file bill to place $3.9B bond referendum on November ballot

Several Democratic lawmakers filed a bill Thursday that would place a $3.9 billion bond for schools, colleges and universities, and water and sewer infrastructure  on the November ballot.

Under House Bill 1088, taxpayers would be asked to approve $2 billion for public schools to begin to address an estimated $8 billion in construction and renovation needs.

In addition to the $2 billion for schools, the lawmakers want to spend:

  • $800 million on water and sewer infrastructure.
  • $500 million on community colleges.
  • $500 million on the UNC system.
  • $100 million on the Museum of History and NC Zoo.

“2020 has seen the end of the longest economic expansion in history,” said Rep. Wesley Harris, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County who is one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “Unfortunately, we failed to take advantage of this growth to adequately fund the infrastructure needs of our state, which are the true drivers of long-term economic growth. Instead, our legislature chose tax cut after tax cut.”

Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat; Rep.Raymond E. Smith Jr.; a Waye County Democrat and Rep. Kandie Smith, a Democrat from Pitt County also co-sponsored the bill.

The $3.9 billion bond proposal mirrors one previously floated by Gov. Roy Cooper.

Last year, Republicans backed a pay-as-you-go plan approved by the House and Senate to pay for infrastructure needs. It was vetoed by Cooper.

Republicans backers of the pay-as-you go scheme argued that it would get money to school districts quicker and save more than $1 million in interest payments.

“It allows you to spend more money on where you would like for it to be spent,” Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, said in 2019.

Democrats argued that the pay-as-you-go scheme would take money from the state’s general fund better spent on increasing teacher pay or fully funding the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

“As we approach a year with expected revenue shortfall, we must preserve every dollar in our general fund that we can, while still making sure we are able to fund our critical infrastructure needs,” Harris said.

Lawmakers expect state revenue shortfalls of between $2 billion and $4 billion because of the COVID-19 crisis, which closed the state’s economy.

North Carolina’s AAA bond rating from major rating agencies would allow the state to issue debt cheaper than nearly any other state, Harris said.

“This proposal begins to close the gap in our infrastructure needs, preserves our general fund for other pressing expenses, and the capital projects will be a job creator as our State’s economy begins to recover from the COVID19 crisis,” Harris said.

Gov. Cooper renews push for bond referendum to build schools, upgrade water and sewer systems

Correction: The economic report mention is this story was released by the N.C. Department of Commerce.  

Gov. Roy Cooper is again pushing a statewide bond referendum for school construction and renovation following good financial news this week from the Debt Affordability Advisory Committee.

The committee reported that the state can afford to borrow up to $11 billion over the next 10 years.

In addition to $2 billion for K-12 schools, Cooper’s $3.9 billion spending proposal includes $500 million each for community colleges and UNC System schools, $800 million for local water and sewer projects and $100 million for the N.C. History Museum and the N.C. Zoo. Click here to see the bond proposal.

Cooper also proposed a $3.9 billion bond referendum last summer.

“We must build schools to get our children out of trailers and reduce class sizes, and a bond now at extremely low interest rates is affordable and necessary,” Cooper said in a statement. “Our state is growing at a remarkable pace, and we should let the people vote on a bond that would help us keep up with the demands of that growth.”

According to the N.C. Department of Commerce’s most recent economic report, the state’s population grew about 1.1% between 2017-18, adding about 113,000 people. North Carolina’s growth outpaced the nation (0.6%) and the South (0.9 percent).

And since 2010, the state’s population has grown about 8.5 %, nearly three percentage points better than the rest of the nation, which grew at 5.8 % clip.

Cooper’s bond proposal was immediately criticized by State Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, who contends a debt-financed bond would cost taxpayers $1 billion in unnecessary interest payments.

It’s an argument Brown made often during budget negotiations last summer when the GOP proposed a $4.4 billion “pay-as-you-go” scheme to build new schools over a 10-year period.

“Why in the world would we max out the credit card when we can just use cash to build new schools instead?” Brown asked. “It doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

Cooper noted in his press release that Republican leaders never responded to a compromise version of his school construction proposal last year that did not contain a bond.

He argues that a bond is “fiscally responsible” because it offers “stability for school districts, college and universities and local governments planning their budgets.

Durham DA to speak at Black August in the Park’s BOND*ference event

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry.

Last week NC Policy Watch spoke with Durham District Attorney  Satana Deberry about the progressive changes she’s brought to her office and the results she’s already seen in the first six months.

This week, Deberry will be the guest for the At The Intersection podcast event as part of Durham’s fifth annual Black August in the Park.

Black August in the Park is an annual event hosted by the collective of the same name. The group calls the event  “reminiscent of a Black family reunion or a homecoming, with an additional emphasis on providing a platform for, and elevating the causes of social justice organizations.”

Deberry will speak live on Friday with hosts Marion Johnson and Brian Kennedy at part of BAP’s inaugural BOND*ference event.

Kennedy is a public policy analyst with the NC Budget and Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center, parent organization of NC Policy Watch.

Johnson, formerly of the NC Justice Center, is a public policy consultant with Frontline Solutions.

Their podcast, At The Intersection, investigates the intersection of policy, culture and identity. The show was recently a finalist for Best Local Podcast in Indyweek’s annual Best of the Triangle competition.

This year’s inaugural BOND*ference event is Friday, Aug. 9 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m at the 21C Hotel at 111 North Corcoran Street in Durham.

Deberry will speak with At The Intersection from 4:15 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Tickets and info on registration can be found here.

Bill would give state superintendent power to approve bond issuance for charters

The House Education Committee has given a favorable report to a Senate bill that would give the State Superintendent the power to approve charter school facility bonds.

Under Senate Bill 392, charters seeking approval to issue private activity bonds would be able to bypass local governments, which must sign off on the financing option now.

The superintendent could approve the issuance of the bonds after holding a public hearing.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga) who said allowing the State Superintendent to approve such requests would give charters an alternative to local governments that may not want to approve them for political reasons.

“In some cases local governments have refused to grant their approval even though the public charter school financing has no impact on their budgets,” Ballard said. “All this is really simply doing is adding another option for the local entities whether it be the city or the county to have available should they not want to vote on this.”

Ballard said it makes sense to give the authority to the superintendent who oversees the state’s charter schools.

“This is purely an administrative matter and there are multiple states that do something very similar,” Ballard said.

Ballard and other bill supporters want to avoid the kind of situation that played out in Durham a year ago when the Durham City Council voted 5-2 to not approve a bond request for Excelsior Classical Academy, which sought financing to pay off a bridge load it used to buy the building it had been leasing.

Council members who voted against the bond request did so in a show of support for Durham Public Schools, which they contend has been harmed by an expansion of charters in the county.

“Rather than acting as labs for innovation and exploration, I believe that charters are now becoming a mechanism by which public education in our state and our community is being threatened and being harmed,” Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said at the time.

Private activity bonds are tax-exempt bonds issued by or on behalf of a local or state government for the purpose of providing special financing for projects of private users that have some public benefit.

Charters receive better rates with private activity bonds than they would using banks or taking corporate loans.

A move to lift enrollment cap for virtual charters

SB 392 was introduced as a stand-alone bill. But a PCS (proposed committee substitute) would bring sweeping changes to the state’s two virtual charters schools.

Under the bill, N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C, Connections Academy would be allowed to increase enrollments to up 3,000 students. The pilot program, which enabled the schools would also be extended from four to eight years.

The State Board of Education [SBE] would be allowed to waive the 3,000-student cap beginning in the eighth year of the schools’ operation.

The legislation authorizing the two K-12 schools capped student enrollment in any virtual charter school at 1,500 students in the school’s first year of operation. It allows virtual charters to increase enrollment by 20 percent up to a maximum student enrollment of 2,592 in the fourth year of the pilot program.

The SBE can waive the maximum student enrollment threshold beginning in the fourth year of the school’s operation, if it determines it is in the best interests of students.

Democratic lawmakers have been critical of efforts to increase enrollment at the two schools because students attending them have not performed well academically. Both schools have earned “Ds” under the state’s letter grading system and neither has met expected student academic growth since opening in 2015.

State Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Orange), proposed an amendment to prevent NC Virtual Academy and NC Connections Academy from increasing its enrollment but it failed on a 14-11 vote.

“It makes no sense to expand struggling schools that are part of a pilot program,” Meyer said in an interview.

He said the legislature should not be in the business of determining when charters open, close or expand.

“That is what our State Board of Education and Charter School Advisory Board is for,” Meyer said.

Senate PCS 392 would also give the SBE the authority to renew a charter for less than 10 years or not at all if the percentage of charter students scoring at or above grade level on state tests is at least 5 percentage points lower than the scores of students attending traditional public schools in the district in which the charter is located.

Under current law, the SBE could renew for less than 10 years or not renew if:

  • The charter school has not provided financially sound audits for the immediately preceding three years.
  • The charter school’s student academic outcomes for the immediately preceding three years have not been comparable to the academic outcomes of students in the local school administrative unit in which the charter school is located.
  • The charter school is not, at the time of the request for renewal of the charter, substantially in compliance with State law, federal law, the school’s own bylaws, or the provisions set forth in its charter granted by the State Board of Education.