Rocketing to nowhere

July 27, 2021 in Kevin Hargaden

KEVIN HARGADEN :: Jeff Bezos is famous as the founder of Amazon. With nothing but his hard work, creativity, and vision, he was able to grow an online book store from his garage, into one of the largest corporate entities in history. Sure, he established it after leaving his job as a stockbroker and he had a US$300,000 gift from his parents, but truly he is an inspiration to all of us about what we can achieve if only we dream.

His net worth is estimated at about US$200 billion, which means he is a bit richer than the entire nation of Slovakia. Some people consider that indecent and call the economic system that could generate such inequalities a monstrosity. But if they stopped complaining and got working, maybe they too could get rich like Mr Bezos.

Now, it must be said, that some people do work as hard as Mr Bezos. Pickers at Amazon warehouses », for example. And let’s not talk about the waste disposal crews who destroy millions of euros of perfectly viable products every year to protect the company’s price margins ».

But Mr Bezos surely deserves a holiday after a gruelling year. So the world celebrated when he took a ride in his curiously shaped rocket to the edge of space. Well, at least the newspaper that Mr Bezos owned did . The 11-minute flight emitted more carbon than 100 long-haul flights. Mainstream American morning television devoted almost as much coverage to that single journey this week than they paid to climate breakdown through the entirety of 2020 ». In truly bizarre scenes afterwards – absurdist like pages straight from an unpublished Kurt Vonnegut novel – Bezos did what capitalist tycoons are not meant to and confessed that he could fly <em>almost</em> to space only because he had amassed stratospheric rewards off the back of other people’s labour: “I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, ’cause you guys paid for all this.” He went on to speculate that the solution to our environmental crisis will involve shifting all heavy industry off the Earth ».

This would be hilarious if it was fiction. As fact, it is tragic.

The immediate critiques that arise almost spontaneously towards Mr Bezos – and Messrs Branson and Musk too – are insurmountable. The only silver-lining to these fantastically wasteful ego-trips is that they will immeasurably strengthen the case for wealth taxes. An argument can be made – a fragile one it must be remembered – that we could justify space exploration as long as it was a common endeavor, dedicated towards scientific discovery and international cooperation. Tourism, or just “I can afford it” cannot carry such payloads!

But the billionaire excursions usefully illuminate something about how it is that so many billionaires have suddenly emerged over the last two decades. Over the last generation, as neoliberal economic policies were largely unchallenged across the western world, the number of billionaires has grown many times over while real world wages effectively stagnated ». Forgive the vulgar Marxist analysis, but the point of neoliberalism – a political system that hijacks the credibility of economics to suggest that policies which curtail and circumscribe the State are not ideological but natural – appears to ultimately be to ensure that the strong get stronger and the weak must fight harder for whatever crumbs fall from the table.

One of the great myths propagated over recent decades is that the State is slow and lumbering and that private enterprise is the real engine of ingenuity in our societies. It follows, then, that regulations should be reduced to free up the entrepreneurs and dreamers to build new things, invent new solutions, create new jobs. We have endured this myth long enough to know that it is bogus. Economists have demonstrated that the State continued to sponsor the real innovations even as corporations sought to starve it ». We know from painful experience in Ireland what deregulation and under-regulation does to markets ». And with these so-called space flights, we see the real, abiding truth of neoliberalism: what it promises, it never delivers.

Because technically, it is questionable whether Jeff Bezos went to space. And Branson certainly didn’t.

Think about it – where does Earth end and space begin? There’s no clear dividing line, some sketched dome beyond which the expanse begins. That line is conceptual – it is divided in the textbooks between the mesosphere and the thermosphere, at about 85km above the planet’s surface. But for the purposes of international law, the boundary of space is established at what is called the Kármán line. Everything that stays under this line – 100km above sea level – is considered an aeronautical device and is subject to certain standards and requirements. Every vehicle intended to break the Kármán line is an astronautical machine and is subject to different criteria.

Bezos amassed his appalling fortune in the context of neoliberal light-touch regulation. He launched Amazon in Seattle so he could take advantage of a sales-tax loophole that let him undercut bricks-and-mortar competitors. He took advantage of patent law to dubiously claim things like “one click ordering” as Amazon’s innovations. He took advantage of lax antitrust enforcement to build up monopoly power. His underselling tactics would have been illegal in any other era as a clearly unfair manipulation of the market but under neoliberal orthodoxy, price-controls of any kind are anathema. He took advantage of weakened trade unions and weaker labour law to implement demands on the lowest level of staff that it seems only robots could satisfy. He took advantage because the regulations let him. The rules were established so that he could win. The game has been rigged for decades and this latest flight of fancy is just the most recent expression of the crazy consequences.

If we pay attention to the details and if regulations actually mean anything, it is false advertising to call this ego-trip a space-flight. And that it is constantly broadcast as such says more about the lasting social impact of the neoliberal billionaire tycoons than all the graphs about carbon emissions we can muster.

The original round of space exploration may have, at base, been a nationalistic ego-battle between the would-be imperial powers of USA and USSR. But at least the common good was served in different ways. When Neil Armstrong took his one small step, the top tax rate in America stood at 70%. Today, it is almost half that at 37%. Christians like to talk about the common good. I worry sometimes that in an age of rampant consumeristic individualism, “common good” will just get cashed out as “what me and my friends want”. But when Mr Bezos and his friends engage in such ostentatious displays of super-wealth, I am weirdly reassured. We now have one very clear example of why we must re-orientate our economy towards serving the goods we share in common. The alternative is rockets to nowhere.