Monday, October 13, 2008

Capitalists in Outer Space

by Norman Markowitz

I haven't written one of my capitalist gone mad articles because there have been too many no so funny examples of crazy capitalism recently, from CE0's from collapsed banks and brokerage houses defending their golden parachutes by pointing to their losses in the huge downturn to the Candides of Wall Street suggesting that these are really good times to buy stocks cheap.

But I did come across an example of capitalism gone mad, in this case, global capitalism, which deserves mention. Richard Garriot, a very rich Texas video game developer and son of a retired U.S. astronaut, went into outer space on a ten day journey with a U.S. astronaut and Russian cosmonaut in a Soyuz spacecraft. For this "fantasy island" experience, he paid thirty five million U.S. dollars (when I was in Soviet Moscow in 1978, it only cost a few kopecks to ride the beautiful subway, whose stations were built with outstanding art as monuments to the working class, but that, as they say, was then, and this is new Russian now).

The New Russians have made a big thing out of "Space Tourism" the way U.S. sports team owners in recent years have built new stadiums with luxury boxes (sharply increasing prices for the average fan)

But where there is a market there are capitalists seeking a profit. The press reports that Sir Richard Branson, a British billionaire who went from a building a huge chain of record stores (Virgin Records) to the airline business (Virgin Atlantic) has opened up his own outer space tour for the rich and not so famous, Virgin Galactic, which is preparing to take "clients" on suborbital flights in the near future (the press reports that 250 people have already put down $200,000 a piece for the flights. And there are other firms in the U.S. trying to get into the business.

The press also reports that all of this really got going in 2001 when a financier named Dennis Tito (hopefully no relation to the Yugoslav Communist leader who lead anti-fascist partisans during WWII to eventually found a socialist Yugoslavia) spent an estimated 20 million to fly a Soyuz craft to the International Space Station. Garriot had hoped to be the first to make that trip, but stock market troubles limited his liquidity at the time.

It gets crazier and crazier. There is even a U.S. based group with Russian connections, which takes wealthy conspicuous consumers on 19,000 trips to see and experience the Russian space program, visit the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Moscow and experience centrifuge training space suit training and zero gravity adventures. When asked how business was going in these hard times, the founder of Mir, an American, said "you'd be surprised how many people have enough money to take expensive trips these days."

Frankly, given the intensified income inequality of the last decades, I wouldn't.

Meanwhile, at a time when the myth of free market capitalism is crumbling all around, Erik Anderson, the CE0 of Space Adventures, a U.S. firm offering "backup crew" services (the complete astronaut training experience without the full flight to the international space station) for a mere three million, sees his company doing for private citizens(with millions of dollars) what big government is doing. "Why," he exclaims," should government employees be the only ones to go into space." Anderson is optimistic since one of his clients, who took his free market orbital adventure is signing up for a second trip and who would have thought a decade ago that some would be willing to spend 35 million to go into space.

Is Space Tourism socially useful? It is simply a tiny service industry for the very rich, producing nothing positive for the economy? Or is it Capitalism's final frontier, its galactic dream, where men like Dennis Tito and Richard Garriot can rise to become financiers and video game entrepreneurs and spend tens of millions of dollars to hobnob with astronauts and cosmonauts, government employees, in outer space. And who, by increasing taxes on the wealthy, closing loopholes, would dare take away that freedom from them? Maybe Senator Barack Obama.

Back on earth, Senator Obama came up today with some decent programs to to deal with the peoples economic crisis, calling for a temporary ban on taxing unemployment benefits, permitting people to borrow on their pensions without penalties to deal with the crisis, federal aid to state and local governments, and a ninety day freeze on home foreclosures along with sharply increased loan guarantees to U.S. automakers.

John McCain meanwhile continues to wander around to his town meetings, looking uneasy as he listens to his "far out" supporters. On the far right, he is being counseled to get going, take off the gloves, do something. But what can he do? He is left with a set of disastrous policies rooted in a bankrupt ideology. Maybe he should take a few days off and go with Palin to Disneyland, which is much cheaper and safer than joining some of his supporters and contributors in Space Tourism.

He might also outsource his campaign to some English speaking country with cheaper labor than the U.S. and have actors who speak and look better than he and Palin run TV spots portraying him as a strong, decisive commander in chief, and Palin as a sensitive sophisticated socially conscious leader. He would still lose the election(although the actors might help him a little in the polls. With the huge campaign savings he and Palin might even afford a trip to the International Space Station on Soyuz (then Palin could really see Russia in a new way).