February 28, 2020
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Billionaires in Space

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

(What a fun title.)

The first novel I ever read in my life was Heinlein's The Star Beast. I was nine or so. By the time I was twelve, I had read most of Heinlein's works, including some I have since reread many times, such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Glory Road, Stranger in a Strange Land, and all his "juveniles" including Podkayne of Mars, Tunnel in the Sky, Citizen of the Galaxy and my personal favorite, Have Space Suit Will Travel (I wanted to be that kid, and I wanted my mom to be more like the Mother Thing).

I was astonished to speak with a twenty-something science fiction aficionado recently who was reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, completed in 1996--but who astonishingly had never heard of Robert Heinlein. The "classicity" of Heinlein's work is illustrated by how much of it still "works" today despite rapid advances in technology; the sentient computer in Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), though being written in a time before current AI and cloud technology, stands up rather well. I remember Heinlein's Friday (1982) as a forerunner of cyberpunk largely because of its amoral, noirish environment in which an act of violence attributed to a terrorist group might actually have been committed by a megacorporation. Heinlein introduced billionaires, not as monochromatic supervillains as they tend to be in William Gibson's work, but with some approval, as forces of nature who might do some good. His 1949 novella, "The Man Who Sold the Moon", introduced the idea of a personal space program, financed by a rich person instead of by a nation-state.

Much of the science fiction I read in the 1960's was set in years that have already passed (2001, for example). I believed in those space stations and moon colonies, and am sorry we don't have them today. Among the elements of earlier science fiction that have absolutely come true (aside from the paranoid all-surveillance environment predicted by Philip K. Dick and others) is the billionaires' personal space program, exemplified by Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos.

Having rambled thus far to arrive at my topic sentence, I devote the remaining short section of this essay to offering an Ology of the Billionaire drive to space. ("Ology" is my cute new way of avoiding committing to whether I am offering an epistemology, ontology or teleology.)

My first premise is that "Billionaire money will out": Money, like a fluid, has its own physics. Almost all Billionaires, rather than letting their money accumulate passively, will use it for something--and often for quite frivolous but disruptive purposes.

In the Hamptons, where I live, there are many Billionaires, and I have a first hand view of some Billionaire Boondoggles, often surprisingly centered around what are essentially hobbies. A hedge fund Billionaire has brought nine law suits against our town as covering fire for an ever expanding seafood restaurant. (Full disclosure: I represent some nongovernment defendants in that case.)A bit-coin Billionaire has also sued the town demanding the right to place an antique trophy-house he purchased, an architect's personal bungalow, on the Paumanok Path near his existing estate. This individual, who is a Democrat, told a magazine interviewer that he would love to run for office one day, if he could only stop getting himself into controversies, for a year or so.

A case I haven't experienced first hand, but read about in the newspaper: "Robert Mercer is accusing the builder of overcharging him by nearly $2 million for the elaborate HO-scale model railroad constructed and installed in his Long Island mansion". Mercer is the Trump supporter who backed Steve Bannon and was an investor in Cambridge Analytica.

My second proposition, which I have written about extensively before, is that "Billionaire money warps democracy". I have said that Billionaires are in fact the biggest existential threat we have going. In both the local examples I give above, the East Hampton Town Board apparently made an early attempt to give each Billionaire what he wanted, before changing its mind due to public outrage. I could go on endlessly citing examples-- the Koch Brothers extensive networks of influence, Sheldon Adelson keeping Newt Gingrich's candidacy going singlehandedly in 2016, Peter Thiel's vengeful destruction of Gawker, the Cambridge Analytica scandal itself, or more generally, the disastrous effects on American democracy of Citizen's United.

It seems an essential fact of human nature that Billionaires will use their money to buy or at least influence any political and social outcomes they can. Republicans who either pretend the Koch Brothers don't exist, or are fine with their role, profess horror at the very idea of George Soros, a rare "left wing" billionaire, and claim that he has tentacles reaching into the Justice Department and state governments. The only example I can think of of Billionaires with strong opinions who apparently haven't used their fortune to buy outcomes are the Macarthurs of "genius prize" fame, who alone have the ethic not to use their money to affect democracy other than through advocacy and education. They are Boundary Cases, the exceptions who prove the rule. The statement any other would make, "Its my money and this is America, I can use it for whatever I want", is very mainstream, smack in the middle of our Overton Window.

I remember standing on Broadway just outside Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street with a sign, "Billionaires or Democracy: Your Choice" and a young broker sincerely groaning as he walked by: "Why can't we have both?"

I have been reading John Hobson's classic 1902 work Imperialism on and off for about a year now. As Wikipedia summarizes: "Hobson states that what he called the 'taproot of imperialism' is not in nationalist pride, but in capitalist oligarchy; and, as a form of economic organization, imperialism is unnecessary and immoral, the result of the mis-distribution of wealth in a capitalist society. He argues that the so-called dysfunction of the political economy created the socio-cultural desire to extend the national markets into foreign lands, in search of profits greater than those available in the Mother Country".

My third assertion, based on the least available evidence (other than the mere existence of their space programs) is: "Billionaires are likely to think of space travel as a personal escape option", not merely as a hobby. Unlike seafood restaurants or model railroads, space is strategic for billionaires, both as an untapped market like foreign colonies, but also as a potential safe room when things go batshit on the home planet.

In 1981, I met a man, not a billionaire, who was nonetheless wealthy enough to have purchased a Gulfstream jet and a farm in New Zealand. He was possibly a little ahead of his time. Peter Thiel later not only bought land in that same country, he secretly purchased citizenship. Billionaires, whom I have also argued have fucked the planet, are clearly already thinking about where to go when the shit hits the fan here.

Much of the optimistic 1960's science fiction I inhaled as a child presented Mars colonies sub specie the benign American frontier-myth, not as places where we murdered the previous inhabitants, but where independent, fair and thoughtful individuals went to navigate their own lives. Two more Heinlein juveniles, Podkayne and Red Planet, exemplify the idea of an aboriginal (and preternaturally powerful) Martian race whom the colonists respect and with whom they coexist. Philip K. Dick was among the first writers to offer an alternative Narrative, in which Mars colonists were exploited proletarians without personal agency. Ursula Leguin's The Word For World is Forest was the first novel I remember reading that applied an Imperialist metaphor to our treatment of alien races. An unforgettable moment in Frederick Pohl's Jem was an epilog at the end in which an intelligent race of balloon-like aliens is revealed, some years after first contact, being used by humans as Christmas tree ornaments.

Billionaires are using their wealth to determine, to structure, how we go into space. Just as there is no ethic or rule which will prevent a Billionaire from expending his wealth on a seafood restaurant or a model train set, there is none to stop him from building a personal space station, for friends and family. This too is a science fiction Trope, most directly expressed in Elysium (2013), directed by Niel Blomenkamp, and also in Alita: Battle Angel (2019), directed by Robert Rodriguez: we live in a dystopian hell, above which hangs a pristine city of the super-wealthy which we can never hope to visit. This Trope, by the way, is a revision of an older one, the evil billionaire's secret island in the first James Bond movies, which not much later had already become a space station.

Of course, I have rather intense feelings about sharing the planet with people who are using their immense resources to destroy it, while creating a personal escape route.

Something I have been asking ordinary Libertarians for years, without ever getting a straight answer is: "When Peter Thiel boards his jet to New Zealand, do you think there will be a seat for you on that plane?" Similarly, why would Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson take you to space? Elon Musk's recent absurd improvisation about sending a million of us to Mars in the next few years is as morally empty and practically meaningless as many of his other outbursts--and, anyway, emphatically does not assure us we would not be serfs there.