Space cadets Branson and Bezos scoop the 2021 shamelessness prize

Every Christmas, Observer Business Agenda casts its eye over the year that was, seeking to spotlight the business luminaries whose deeds might otherwise have gone unrecognised. At first glance 2021 looked awfully similar to 2020 – a pandemic, various lockdowns and a new wave of infections to round it all off – but it soon became clear that there were still candidates worthy of special recognition.

And the winner is … Sir Richard Branson. The eponymous award winner has taken his ego to the last place it had yet to colonise: space. We are of course used to billionaire oneupmanship, but where yachts were the plaything of choice, now it is rockets.

After Branson’s years of unfulfilled promises that a launch was just around the corner, it was vital that his company, Virgin Galactic, made it into space (or near it, according to some contested definitions of where the atmosphere ends) before rivals. So he cannily waited for Bezos to set a launch date for his oddly “anthropomorphic” spaceship in July – then jumped in with his own nine days earlier.

Yet Bezos can surely not feel too hard done by in this year’s awards. After all, he has already presented our next gong: to Amazon’s workers for funding his own jaunt beyond the atmosphere.

“I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all of this,” the Stetsoned billionaire gushed in July after landing back on Earth. Workers campaigning for union recognition in the company’s famously intense warehouses will of course accept his gratitude and never bring it up at salary negotiations.

While it was his failure to phase out coal that brought the UK’s chair of the Cop26 climate talks to tears, this year’s honour once again goes to the oil industry. The UK supermajors, led by Ben van Beurden at Shell and the unimprovable Bernard Looney of BP, plus ExxonMobil and Chevron in the US, all managed to bury their heads even further in the sand. This was despite a series of shareholder rebellions, led by tiny campaign group Follow This, which suggested that they may just have to think about reducing their carbon footprints. The oil companies decided instead to kick the can down the road by signing up to cut emissions while also drilling for more oil. Bravo.

Coming a close second in the race for “last refuge of the scoundrel” was the Trump family, after both Donald and Ivanka Trump described the rioters storming the US Capitol as “patriots”. But neither managed to spectacularly misunderstand love for country while also riding an electric surfboard and waving the star-spangled banner. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg! The Facebook boss posted a minute-long video on Instagram of himself on US Independence Day riding above the water on an efoil board (about $10,000 a pop) to the backing of John Denver’s Country Roads.

This wasn’t the only time Zuckerberg played up to his public image as billionaire nerd to questionable effect during 2021: a joke about his robotic demeanour fell particularly flat during a video announcing Facebook’s rebrand as Meta. Meta wants to host the next generation of the internet (and it also gives it a handy excuse to distance itself from the controversies of its money-spinning social network).

The UK’s former chancellor was relatively young when he was booted out of the job, so quickly turned his hand to filling his time with as many other gigs as he could. (His latest this year: a job at an investment bank – in recognition, we suppose, of his record for canny financial management.)

This year the gong in his honour goes to the entire private equity industry, which has managed to go from niche concern of the financial pages to owner of what seems like most of British industry. Supermarkets (Morrisons), pubs (Punch), aerospace (Cobham), nuclear submarines (Ultra Electronics) … there seems to be no door a big wodge of cash can’t open – except, for LV=, a mutual where normal people actually had a say.

A dishonourable mention for this award must first go to the man who became the world’s richest at the beginning of the year, Elon Musk. In retaliation for being punished for stock manipulation, Musk hijacked the Securities Exchange Commission’s abbreviation, tweeting: “SEC, three letter acronym, middle word is Elon’s.”

But the winners of the year’s least-loved initialism award are NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which became mainstream in 2021. Basically take the utopian Wikipedia-esque ideal of endlessly shareable digital information (say an artwork or a video clip), and find a way to make it scarce and exclusive like in the physical world so it can be sold at a big profit. There may well be some use for the technology, but 2021 did not deliver it.

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