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What billionaire space racers can learn from Norm MacDonald

September 16, 2021, 8:07 PM UTC

Rest in peace, Norm MacDonald. After the deadpan funnyman died this week at 61, I realized I hadn’t actually seen any of his recent material, even though his stint as Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update anchor was so vivid in my memory. So after we put our infant daughter to sleep last night, my wife and I watched a recent standup special on Netflix

Was it his best? No. But there was a joke that resonated with me about the changing way we’re living — and how Big Tech’s priorities are askew. 

MacDonald’s joke is squarely in the pocket of grumpy old man humor, but it goes something like this: There were only 12 people who ever walked on the moon, and we only really remember two of them: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The last one was this guy Harrison Shmitt. That’s amazing, but nobody’s ever heard of him. And yet, we make people famous for having large butts. (You can watch MacDonald give a version of this joke here on David Letterman). 

As eye-roll inducing as the joke is, there’s something there. Fame is an extension of the general public’s aspirations. We want to be like Mike (that is, Michael Jordan). We miss the old Kanye (Kanye West, for those not in the know). There are photo filters that make us look like the Kardashians. 

So it’s kind of stunning to see that Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch yesterday had a crew that includes a community college professor and a physician’s assistant — the kind of ordinary people who will theoretically be able to fly beyond the earth’s atmosphere if private space travel becomes ubiquitous and affordable. Was the launch a stunt? Of course it was. But it’s a far cry from Jeff Bezos, world’s richest man, thanking the people whose bathroom breaks he monitors for funding his own jaunt into low orbit. 

The SpaceX flight will last until Saturday, during which time the crew will orbit the earth 12 times and conduct medical and scientific tests. This seems on the whole a different order of the other billionaire spaceflights that dominated news coverage this summer. 

I’m skeptical that low-orbit space flight will catch on among would-be tourists. I know there is a crazy amount of money being poured into this industry — including an industry news outlet funded by the Winklevoss twins. Richard Branson’s company is run by the former head of Disney Parks International, which sounds about right. How many times do you really need to ride Space Mountain before you get it?

But I’m willing to be proved wrong. The thing about Shmitt, the last man to walk on the moon, is that fame should have diminishing returns. And maybe spaceflight will have some use beyond just a show of wealth or fulfilling some fantasy. If it gets to the point of being unremarkable, well, wouldn’t that be funny?

Kevin T. Dugan
@kevintdugan

NEWSWORTHY

The Facebook files. The latest story to drop in the Wall Street Journal's series on Facebook is a doozy. Not only is the company unaware of how drug cartels and human traffickers use the platform, it turns the other way. A damning quote from the story: Facebook treats harm in developing countries as “simply the cost of doing business” in those places, said Brian Boland, a former Facebook vice president. This is on the heels of stories showing how Mark Zuckerberg's company knows it's harmful to teen girls, has been applying its own rules differently to celebrities and politicians, and has made its platform an angrier place. 

Lucid dreams. Lucid Motors, the luxury electric vehicle maker, beat Tesla when it comes to how far its cars travel, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Lucid's cars go 520 miles on a single charge, beating its rival by more than 100 miles. The range is an important metric as EV makers are rushing to make their batteries hold longer charges, go farther, and power up faster. 

Movie time. Theater chain/meme stock AMC announced it's expanding the number of cryptocurrencies it's accepting for movie tickets. While the company already accepts Bitcoin, it will also take Ether, Litecoin, and Bitcoin Cash. Shares were up less than 1% near the end of the trading day. 

Video games. China will require game makers to submit video games to censors as the government there further cracks down on the industry. Verboten are themes that are "too scary," or include "boys' love." This comes after the country limited children to three hours of gaming a week. 

Insurance adjuster. Massachusetts' securities regulator fined insurer MassMutual $4.75 million for not supervising Keith Gill, a.k.a. "Roaring Kitty," while he evangelized GameStop's stock on Reddit, leading to the original meme stock frenzy this year. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Paying up. One of the trendiest words in the changing world of finance today is “democratizing.” You see it everywhere. Companies that offer Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) installment-type payments for online shopping act as if they’re Thomas Jefferson. The idea here is that they make purchases attainable to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them. But this is just marketing — extremely effective as it may be. Nobody wants to be against democracy. And if you kind of squint and hold your breath for 30 seconds these companies do...something...that makes it kind of like equality. 

Well, I’m the crank who’s standing athwart this industry yelling “stop!” Of course this has nothing to do with the rights enumerated in the Constitution, or Rousseau, or Aristotle. It’s just another way to charge people fees and interest for borrowing. Case in point: this story in the Journal that shows why retailers love it. BNPL brings them more customers, without taking on any additional credit risk. It’s a win-win for them, even as the BNPL companies charge people who usually can least afford it more money for stuff.

From the story

Interest rates and other terms vary by payment-plan provider. Affirm interest rates range from 0% to 30%, with some 43% of its transactions during its last fiscal year not charging interest at all. The company doesn’t charge late fees. Afterpay doesn’t charge interest but does collect late fees.

Merchants take no credit risk with these plans, but the fees they incur can be higher than on credit-card purchases—often between 3% and 5% of the purchase price, according to people familiar with the matter.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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‘Fauxquisitions’ are misleading the startup community by Aron Soloman

Macau, China’s casino capital, has enjoyed a decades-long winning streak. It might finally end by Eamon Barrett

Jay-Z’s legal dispute with Damon Dash hits the NFT space by Chris Dolmetsch and Bloomberg

Months after the SPAC boom, returns have been ‘weak,’ says Goldman Sachs by Anne Sraders

Short of gas, wind, and power: How a perfect storm is roiling the world’s energy market by Katherine Dunn

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BEFORE YOU GO

Privacy check. Apple’s salvo earlier this year against ad trackers — and, by extension, Facebook and other companies that rely on that ad revenue — raises an important question: Can we have a world awash in phones, social media, and free content without that tradeoff?

The answer appears to be no. This piece in the New York Times delves into some of the effects that are already taking place, and how even bakeries are getting caught in the crossfire. But is it all so bad? I’m reminded now of how expensive Ubers have become, now that venture capital money is no longer subsidizing the company and as governments increasingly levy taxes and require licenses. What ride-hailing boosters had promised would be a catastrophe has instead turned out to be fine — you pay up, or find another way.

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