Bored billionaires want tax breaks to
escape a planet they helped pollute.
Should we even let them back?
Sam Pizzigati / Other Words
(July 21, 2021) — Three of the richest billionaires on Earth are now spending billions to exit Earth’s atmosphere and enter into space. The world is watching — and reflecting.
Some charmed commentators say the billionaires racing into space aren’t just thrilling humankind — they’re uplifting us. The technologies they develop “could benefit people worldwide far into the future,”says Yahoo Finance’s Daniel Howley.
But most commentators seem to be taking a considerably more skeptical perspective.
They’re dismissing the space antics of Branson, Bezos, and Musk as the ego trips of bored billionaires — “cynical stunts by disgustingly rich businessmen,” as one British analyst puts it, “to boost their self-importance at a time when money and resources are desperately needed elsewhere.”
“Space travel used to be about ‘us,’ a collective effort by the country to reach beyond previously unreachable limits,” writes author William Rivers Pitt. “Now, it’s about ‘them,’ the 0.1 percent.”
The best of these skeptical commentators can even make us laugh.
“Really, billionaires?” comedian Seth Meyers asked earlier this month. “This is what you’re going to do with your unprecedented fortunes and influence? Drag race to outer space?”
Let’s enjoy the ridicule. But let’s not treat the billionaire space race as a laughing matter.
Let’s see it as a wake-up call — a reminder that we don’t only get billionaires when wealth concentrates. We get a society that revolves around the egos of the most affluent and an economy where the needs of average people don’t particularly matter.
Characters like Elon Musk, notes Paris Max, host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, are using “misleading narratives about space to fuel public excitement” and gain tax-dollar support for various projects “designed to work best — if not exclusively — for the elite.”
The three corporate space shells for Musk, Bezos, and Branson — SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic — have “all benefited greatly through partnerships with NASA and the US military,” notes CNN Business. Their common corporate goal: to get satellites, people, and cargo “into space cheaper and quicker than has been possible in decades past.”
Branson is hawking tickets for roundtrips “to the edge of the atmosphere and back” at $250,000 per head. He’s planning some 400 such trips a year, observes British journalist Oliver Bullough, about “almost as bad an idea as racing to see who can burn the rainforest quickest.”
The annual UN Emissions Gap Report last year concluded that the world’s richest 1 percent do more to foul the atmosphere than the entire poorest 50 percent combined. Opening space to rich people’s joyrides would stomp that footprint even bigger.
Bezos and Musk seem to have grander dreams than mere space tourism — they’re looking to colonize space. They see space as a refuge from an increasingly inhospitable planet Earth. And they expect tax-dollar support to make their various pipedreams come true.
How should we respond to all this?
We should, of course, be working to create a more hospitable planet for all humanity. In the meantime, advocates are circulating tongue-in-cheek petitions that urge terrestrial authorities not to let orbiting billionaires back on Earth.
“Billionaires should not exist…on Earth or in space, but should they decide the latter, they should stay there,” reads one Change.org petition nearing 200,000 signatures.
Ric Geiger, the 31-year-old automotive supplies account manager behind that effort, is hoping his petition helps the issue of maldistributed wealth “reach a broader platform.”
Activists like Geiger are going down the right track. We don’t need billionaires to “conquer space.” We need to conquer inequality.
Billionaires Won’t Save the World — Just Look at Elon Musk
(March 21, 2018) — Will Mars save humanity? Or will our savior be billionaire Elon Musk?
Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, humbly believes we don’t have to choose. Mars will save us, he promises, and Musk himself will engineer this Mars miracle.
In 2019, Musk claims, SpaceX will start making short trips to Mars. By the early 2020s, his company will begin colonizing the Red Planet with a human population.
Why this feverish haste to set foot on interplanetary terra firma?
Musk sees a new “dark age” descending on our precious Earth. Another world war — or some environmental collapse — appears likely to threaten us with extinction, he fears.
Mars strikes Musk as our ideal refuge, the place where humankind will heroically regroup and eventually “bring human civilization back” to our mother planet.
And we can even have some fun in the process. The Mars colony that Musk envisions will have everything from iron foundries to “pizza joints and nightclubs.”
“Mars,” he quips, “should really have great bars.”
Reporters have become accustomed to this sort of visionary whimsy from Musk. The billionaire, In These Times says, has crafted his image as “a quirky and slightly off-kilter playboy genius inventor capable of conquering everything from outer space to the climate crisis with the sheer force of his imagination.”
This carefully cultivated image has proven extraordinarily lucrative.
Investors now value Tesla, his 15-year-old car company, at around $60 billion — not bad, note Wall Street watchdogs Pam and Russ Martens, for a firm that “lost almost $2 billion last year and has never delivered an annual profit to shareholders.”
But Musk remains supremely confident that his enterprise on Mars will take root and prosper. He’s betting a good chunk of his fortune on that.
Or rather, he’s betting a good chunk of taxpayers’ fortune.
Musk owes his billions, as commentator Kate Aronoff points out, to the billions in direct taxpayer subsidies his companies have received over the years — and the billions more in taxpayer-funded research into rocket technology and other high-tech fields of knowledge.
So Musk is essentially investing our billions in his own pet projects, everything from the Mars gambit to establishing a mass-market niche for high-tech flamethrowers.
None of this is going to rescue humanity anytime soon.
Indeed, if Musk really wanted to ensure humankind a sustainable future, he wouldn’t be plotting escapes to Mars or marketing flamethrowers to the masses. He’d be challenging the global economic status quo that’s left him phenomenally rich and our world phenomenally unequal.
This inequality may well pose the greatest threat to our well-being as a species. Stark economic divides invite armed confrontations.
Inequality and conflict, Norwegian scholars observed last year in a major report for the United Nations and the World Bank, remain “inextricably linked.” They found that “inequality influences the outbreak and dynamics of violent conflict,” going all the way back to the ancient Greeks.
In more recent years, researchers have made great strides in understanding the actual pathways in unequal societies that turn conflict violent. But huge gaps in the research are still frustrating our understanding.
What we do know: Hawking high-tech flamethrowers is never going to save humanity. Neither will bar-hopping on Mars.
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