Space Trek: Into Derpness (A Fisking)

I actually had something profound to say this week, but what with a number of things, I was not able to get my thoughts into any coherent order by my self-imposed and oft-violated deadline of Blog Wednesday. Then, suddenly, a golden opportunity for a fisking was bestowed upon me. I’ve never done one of these before, so I thought I’d start with an easy one: A Guardian post that is either clever parody or mind-bogglingly stupid. I’ll let you take your pick. Rules for the fisking: The fisked article is in italics, and my responses are in bold.

What if the mega-rich just want rocket ships to escape the Earth they destroy?

Jess Zimmerman 

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the latest tech billionaire to invest his money in spaceships: on Tuesday, he debuted his space travel company Blue Origin’s newest rocket. Now, those who want to cruise the galaxy can choose between the sleek new rocket and the stubbier model Bezos announced in April – or they can opt to ride with Tesla founder Elon Musk on a SpaceX ship, or hop on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Well, yes, if by “cruise the galaxy” you mean “achieve Low Earth Orbit,” and in the case of Virgin Galactic, fail to do even that. This is not a promising beginning for any article that wishes to be taken seriously about the possibility of people destroying planets, if you can’t tell the difference between orbital craft, sub-orbital craft, and galactic cruisers.

At this rate, would-be space travelers will be able to choose their favorite tech company, find its richest guy and buy a ticket on his craft of choice. Why does everyone who achieves economic dominance over the planet immediately turn around and try to get off it?

Everyone? Three companies is “everyone?” This whole quantitative reasoning thing is a challenge for you, isn’t it? A better question would be, “What’s got you so obsessed with people who are reinvesting money into companies that are advancing our engineering knowledge and employing clever people?” Somehow, I’m guessing (re: The Ominous Title) we’re going to find out that this isn’t okay with you for various reasons.

The “boys and their toys” explanation is the obvious one – once you’ve bought all the cars and boats and planes you want, why not buy a rocket? (We don’t have a “girls and their toys” ethos yet because the cards are stacked against women getting to this level of obscene wealth, but I suspect a lot of us would want to buy rocketships, too.)

What? GIRLS wanting to buy rockets? I’m shocked. I thought that womyn were far too responsible and caring to want to go to space with “boys and their toys” since that’s how you dismiss the whole enterprise (no pun intended). But, I’ll give credit for some honesty. I really like women who think rockets are awesome.

Space is inherently cool, and even if it weren’t, space is inherently other – which matters a lot to the man who has everything terrestrial. By the same token, someone who already has a watch that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars can buy a watch that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars but comes from space.

Okay, I have to agree with you on that one: those watches are damned stupid. On the other hand you just compared someone who is spending millions of dollars to develop the capability to launch spacecraft with someone spending several hundred thousand to own a toy. Is it possible that these men are more interested in capability than they are with ownership? Or is it possible that you really don’t understand the difference between the two? (HINT: That says a lot more about you than it does them).

Of course, uber-wealthy tech entrepreneurs aren’t just buying rockets for their personal amusement. They’re founding or investing in space travel – they want to get you off-planet, too. Well, not you-you, but someone like you with much, much, much more money.

Well, um yes. The development of new vehicles has always, ALWAYS been for the rich to do. What’s that? You don’t believe me? Okay, you are free to prove me wrong. Go out into the wilderness — any wilderness you choose — and make me a vehicle used by poor people today. Like a passenger train. No? A city bus, then. Still no? Well how about a bicycle? Can’t be hard, peasants in developing nations use them. No? Okay, how about a dugout canoe? People in STONE AGE tribes use them.
Well, of course you’ll need an axe. Get to making one.
You would need metal for that. Or stone, it’s all over the place.
I know you don’t know how. That’s the point.
No vehicle to carry humans has ever been developed cheaply, unless it was already being done by an advanced society and the vehicle was a variant on an existing design. You have to pay for the R&D, the failures, and the sucky prototypes, and all that costs money, so it gets done by the relatively rich, i.e. the people well-fed enough and with enough disposable time and energy to make tools, break tools, make more tools, and go on living.

And that’s where the vogue for billionaire space travel magnates gets a little weird –and maybe even sinister. It’s already very true that money expands your world; the person with the funds to have a car is less restricted in her movements than the person without one, and the person with a huge plane and the money to fly it is less restricted still.

Yes. Money is good. It expands your range of choices. Not sure why that’s sinister, unless you believe that richness is de facto suspect, which of course, you do.

The expansion of rich people’s travel horizons comes at a price for everyone, both rich and poor. With the exception of America’s weirdly-expensive Amtrak system, cost and luxury scale with fossil fuel consumption; travel that costs more and feels more indulgent is also travel that has a cataclysmic effect on the environment. The faster and further you can afford to travel, the greater your environmental footprint. And often, the people less able to travel are the ones left holding the toxic-chemical and pollution-filled bag.

Yes. The expansion of rich people’s travel horizons comes at a price for everyone, both rich and poor. AND IT BENEFITS EVERYONE, BOTH RICH AND POOR! I’m sorry, but there’s no way to get around this. Governments concerned with helping the poor didn’t invent trains. They didn’t invent buses. They didn’t invent cars. They did make those trains and buses run badly and they did make the cars unaffordable, but all of those things were invented and owned by rich, rich people, who wanted to make more money and found that transporting the poor (and their goods) did that quite efficiently. The poor generally liked this, and got cheaper and cheaper transportation.
And excuse me, but “cost and luxury scale with fossil fuel consumption?” I know you’re talking about leaving the planet, but have you ALREADY LEFT? How much fossil fuel do luxury yachts burn? Or are you talking about cheap, non-fossil fuel nuclear submarines? Or aircraft carriers? Oh, you don’t think those are fair comparisons? How about this: I didn’t buy a hybrid last time I went car shopping, because I calculated that gas would have to stay a steady $5.00/gallon for it to be worth the extra up-front costs.
The only reason that argument holds together long enough to be even vaguely deceptive is because people like you have made sure it stays that way by denying us the possibility of building cheap nuclear plants because too many people saw Godzilla and THEM! in the theaters in the fifties and got scared of THE RADIATIONS!
Still, it’s good there are socially conscious people like you who walk and bike everywhere you go.
I mean, I assume you don’t own a car, because that would make you, comparatively, a rich person leaving toxic-chemical and pollution-filled bags in the hands of the approximately 88% of the poor you seem so concerned with. And that link is to a leftist source, so I’m sure it’s reliable enough for you.
And I’m sure you’re not that kind of hypocrite.

Companies like Blue Origin are using money and resources to push outwards, to expand the worlds of their rich customers all the way into space.

Their money and their resources, yes, but all property is theft except mine, right?

But those same customers – and some of the owners – are making their terrestrial money in the classic capitalist terrestrial way: by working around any obstacle to profit, including environmental regulations and conservation efforts. Almost all industry is environmentally disastrous, after all; truly prioritizing earth-friendliness would destroy most companies.

Oh, I see! It’s INDUSTRY that’s the problem, because it’s all “environmentally disastrous.” Hey, you know what’s MORE environmentally disastrous? Trying to feed seven billion people without industry. We’d have to feed the world on organics then, baby, because no evil industrialists would be there to make the Bad Chemicals that kill insects and weeds. But of course, I’m missing your point. Your point is we shouldn’t have seven billion people at all! We should go back to when the human race WASN’T overpopulating the planet! Of course, we didn’t have birth control then, because there wasn’t any industry to create cheap, reliable condoms or hormonal birth control.
Oh, wait: we DID have reliable population controls.
They were called “infant mortality” and “death in childbirth.”

Some people with a great deal of money care more about the fate of the world than others, but they’re all willing to cut corners if it affects the bottom line. You can tell because they have a great deal of money; you can also tell because they’re willing to spend it on a ride in a spaceship.

Yeah, those colossally selfish jerks. It’s almost as bad as those selfish bastards driving their cars. Or spending their precious working hours using computers instead of growing food for the poor.

Which raises the question: are they just gearing up to wash their hands of the planet and leave the rest of us to clean up? By pushing outward while ignoring the problems it causes back on the home turf, are they effectively creating a galactic upper class that rests on the backs of the earthbound? Even if that’s not literally the plan, it may be the ultimate outcome.

Wow. You really just shoved the whole premise of your article into the last paragraph as an airy supposition, didn’t you? Did you get that idea off watching Elysium? Where would these rich people go? Do you expect them to build giant space habitats and leave us all here to rot (despite the fact that life in space is bad for you and uncomfortable on a number of levels that we haven’t begun to solve). Or do you expect them to go to Mars? (HINT: It’s NOT HABITABLE. “The Martian” is NOT A DOCUMENTARY.)
What kind of person leaps ahead to those kinds of implausible, and hence unproven (hell, except for her, unalleged!) generalities? This is like watching a spoiled rich girl addicted to soap operas who runs to her mother when she finds an ENVELOPE in DAD’S POCKET with a WOMAN’S HANDWRITING… which turns out to be a birthday card from his mother.

Oh, wait, I know what kind of person does that.
It’s the kind of person who confuses three with everyone and uses “galactic” to describe things in near-Earth orbit.

From Somewhere In Orbit The Galaxy

We Hold These Rights IV: What Is Our Property In Rights?

Preface: In one week, I’ll be going to a conference on the Bill of Rights, sponsored by The Bill of Rights Institute, on Civil Liberty and the Constitution. As part of this conference, I have been asked to read a number of historical documents, written by the framers, their mentors, and those who lived, legislated, and worked within that Constitutional frame. This resonates deeply with me, as I have been struggling for some time now with concepts such as “rights,” “freedom,” and “justice.”  What follow are my thoughts.

In my last post, I discussed Madison’s view that people have rights to property, following the Lockean idea that property exists when a person claims a part of the common through his or her own labor. But Madison also refers to the “property” that we have in our rights. The implication of these intersecting ideas is that we, essentially, “own” our rights in the same way that we own our property. These would be Locke’s rights of life, liberty, and property, though not the franchise, necessarily. That was something that could be reserved for persons who owned other property, in Madison’s day. Now recall what Madison said of property; it is: “every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.” Further, “a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them… He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.”

So far, so basic: I have the right to express myself to the extent that I do not make it impossible for you to express yourself. I have the right to practice my religion to the extent that I do not make it impossible for you to practice yours. And I have the right to a free use of my powers so long as I don’t stop you from using yours. But the implications for treating these rights as property are frankly staggering. Locke began his argument for the government as the judge of rights by framing the yielding of a man’s rights to the government as a kind of trade: In exchange for equal protection under the laws, I renounce my right to be the executor of the laws. In other words, rights, whatever their source, can be traded and bartered for other rights by contract, because they are property.

This is a thought that is thoroughly frightening, and I’m sure many of my readers will see it at once, but let’s spread it out verbally: People are commonly thought to have a right to set the price for their own property. Commonly, the price for property is other property. But if our rights are property and our property are rights, then we could also say that the price for our rights is other rights. If we think about it, we make this bargain daily, or at least, those of us who are employed for wages and salaries do: We trade our rights for the “free use of our faculties” for the money of our employer.

Lest anyone say that this analysis merely shows the moral bankruptcy of the very concept of “property” I must point out that substituting “rights” doesn’t take us very far. After all, if you refuse to speak of property, how will you determine who has the right to consume? Any body with the power to distribute the right to consume to one who cannot produce has by definition the power to deny the right to consume to one who can. And that is the very definition of slavery. Slavery does not, however, consist in the trading of rights for other rights: that, it is obvious, as we have seen.

Where we do get very close to slavery, however, is when our power to make trades becomes limited, as we observed in our last post, by those private or public powers who can use disparities of power to force a trade which can be of benefit only to their own side. When labor is so plentiful, and money so scarce, that 100% or more of a person’s capacity for labor must be exchanged to obtain the bare minimum of property s/he must consume to stay alive, we have effective slavery.

We have it in other areas, as well. We have in the Constitution rights to freedom of speech and of the press. But we have never interpreted that to mean that we have the right to use instruments of speech and press that are the property of others. If, however, the means of communication are such that 100% or more of a person’s capacity for labor must be exchanged to access (or create) these instruments, we have effective censorship.

Moreover, if we have the right to “the free use of (our) faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them,” that implies the right NOT to be communicated to, if communication is undesired by us. If the communication of others is inescapable, or nearly so, our right is violated. I find it curiously ironic, upon George Orwell’s recent birthday, that so much attention was paid to Orwell’s message on the right to self-expression, when the truly oppressive quality of Orwell’s dystopia was not so much that his hero could not speak, but that he could not escape the incessant, unfettered speech of the Oceanian State.

The only solution I see to this problem of our property in rights is by appealing to the most basic principles of contract, though that is problematic, too. After all, a person is held responsible, and thought responsible, for signing a bad contract, and is held to the terms of that contract, even if it spells financial ruin. But no contract is valid which confers no benefit to one of the parties. And if a person is in such a situation, where his or her rights must be traded away for no benefit, the conclusion must be that the contract cannot be a binding one. The dividing line between a bad contract and no contract is not always so easily seen, however.

The other corollary I see here is this: the Bill of Rights denies to the government many powers, especially powers that limit the freedoms of citizens. It seems to me impossible that the founders meant to make it impossible for the government to oppress its citizens, while at the same time guaranteeing the right of certain citizens to oppress their fellows. Since the Citizens United case, much has been made of the slogan that “money is not speech.” This has always struck me as naive in the extreme: of COURSE money is speech, and always has been. The purpose of the First Amendment is in part to make sure that my money is as good as yours for the purpose of buying the paper, ink, airwaves, bandwidth, etc. that goes into spreading speech. It was written to ensure the government could NOT consider opinions a type of currency that trumped money. But now we run into an inherent contradiction that I cannot as yet resolve: when YOUR opinion is worth more to you than MY money, and you are willing to ignore my money to propagate your opinion (especially if YOU control the medium in question), then has the government not granted to you the power from which it has recused itself: to silence, effectively, my point of view?

I’d love tto hear some opinions here.

We Hold These Rights, Part III: What Is Our Right to Property?

Preface: In three weeks, I’ll be going to a conference on the Bill of Rights, sponsored by The Bill of Rights Institute, on Civil Liberty and the Constitution. As part of this conference, I have been asked to read a number of historical documents, written by the framers, their mentors, and those who lived, legislated, and worked within that Constitutional frame. This resonates deeply with me, as I have been struggling for some time now with concepts such as “rights,” “freedom,” and “justice.”  What follow are my thoughts.

As I read further into the documents of our founders and their influences, I find myself compelled to broaden my definition of the term “property.” All my life, I have been taught by my family, my church, and my schools to think of property as mere objects. Things. To treat a person as property is tantamount to slavery, and nothing — literally, no thing — could be as important as a human life.

This was not the mindset of our founders:

“This term in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.” In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage. In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property. In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”

— James Madison

Note that Madison did not consider his thoughts as unimportant as his property. He considered his property as important as his very thoughts: “every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.

The italics are not mine. The implication is vast: If you have a right to it and value it, it is your property, so long as your possession of that property does not deprive anyone else to their right to 1) value such a thing and 2) have a right to such a thing. At first glance, that seems contradictory. If I own an apple and eat it, you can’t eat it too. But that’s not the statement. The statement is that if I own an apple and can eat it, it must be possible for you to own and eat apples as well. I have no right to own all the apples everywhere.

Further, the implication for the legitimacy of any sort of market manipulation is not good. I don’t know all of Madison’s opinions on everything, but we do know as a matter of historical record that one of the primary motivations behind the American Revolution was the British homeland’s systematic refusal to allow the American colonies to sell and buy freely on the international market, using their own ships and setting their own prices. Jefferson complains of laws being passed denying the American colonists the right to manufacture their own goods.

I am uncertain what the founders’ arguments would be, but I question seriously whether we can differentiate between a government that passes laws preventing us from the use of our own property, and a business interest that makes it impossible to acquire or use property. If it is immoral and unjust to pass laws that establish monopolies and exclude others from them, then it seems to me equally immoral and unjust to allow such monopolies to exist without passing laws against them. The founders seem to be upset that they are being excluded from, as it were, the democracy of money, the idea that my money is just as good as yours. Yet monopolies and market manipulators regularly exclude others from this democracy by price-manipulation. I myself have little patience for the corporate-phobia that runs rampant through popular culture, but one hardly needs to believe in vast, shadowy corporate conspiracies to dominate the world to see this process. When speculators drive up the price of oil (or anything else) simply because they believe (or fear) that the price will rise, their money is better than ours, because they will pay less today than they will force us to pay tomorrow. They never intend to use this property. They intend merely to sell it to us again when we need it, and at a higher price.

I suggest that this cannot be the right to property. G.K. Chesterton, at the opening of the 20th century, spoke of those who denied rationality as purveyors of “the thought that destroys thought.” In the same manner, those who advocate the right to speculate and manipulate prices wholesale are trading in the property that destroys property. It is, ethically, theft disguised as property. It is a counterfeit of property, just as sure as the thief is the counterfeit of the producer of wealth. It denies the right to own property just as surely — more surely, if the drug trade is any example to us — as the most draconian laws.

I have more to say on property in rights, but this post is long enough.

Somewhere In Orbit

We Hold These Rights Part II: What Rights Do We Hold?

Preface: In four weeks, I’ll be going to a conference on the Bill of Rights, sponsored by The Bill of Rights Institute, on Civil Liberty and the Constitution. As part of this conference, I have been asked to read a number of historical documents, written by the framers, their mentors, and those who lived, legislated, and worked within that Constitutional frame. This resonates deeply with me, as I have been struggling for some time now with concepts such as “rights,” “freedom,” and “justice.”  What follow are my thoughts.

In my last post, I discussed my lack of surprise at encountering the general tenor of John Locke’s work. But I was surprised to encounter many of Locke’s thoughts on what constituted what might be called The Big Three Rights. The Big Three are: Life, Liberty, and Property.

For John Locke, these three rights are all very much of a piece, for as he says:

And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life: for I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it; for nobody can desire to have me in his absolute power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom, i. e. make me a slave. To be free from such force is the only security of my preservation; and reason bids me look on him, as an enemy to my preservation, who would take away that freedom which is the fence to it; so that he who makes an attempt to enslave me, thereby puts himself into a state of war with me.

In a later passage, Locke extends this statement to include even those who take property by force. Such men “justly expose (themselves)” to the hazard of death. Locke thus establishes the three ideas as something very close to a continuum: Property, being the means whereby people sustain liberty and life, is thought of as being not very far removed in importance from it. And while I and I hope most of my readers are somewhat horrified at the idea of taking a man’s life over a theft, I find it difficult to argue with Locke’s main thesis, here: The man who holds me in such contempt that he would take away my means to live is surely not very far from holding me in the contempt necessary to deprive me of life itself.

Locke even defines property, and the definition is elegantly simple: Property = a resource taken from the common (in this case, the earth) by the expenditure of one’s own labor. The expense of the labor produced, for Locke, effects the transfer of property from the collective of the species as a whole to the individual. And yet Locke then goes on to make a statement that sounds almost Marxist: “As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labor fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.” And so for Locke, there are strict limits to what a person may lay hold of as property for consumption. However, this leaves us with two problems:

1) Locke does not extend the limit on wastage to include any limitation on hoarding durable goods. It seems that it either did not occur to him that this could cause much human misery or he did not care: But since gold and silver, being little useful to the life of man in proportion to food, raiment, and carriage, has its value only from the consent of men, whereof labor yet makes, in great part, the measure; it is plain, that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having, by a tacit and voluntary consent, found out a way how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus, gold and silver,
which may be hoarded up without injury to any one; these metals not spoiling or decaying in the hands of the possessor.” Therefore, strictly speaking, I am doing more harm to the collective good of humanity when I throw away a pizza crust than, say, the Fisk and Gould brothers did when they tried to corner the gold market, a conclusion that seems rather absurd.

2) Locke seems not to have considered how the taking of one good from the common might, in a sense, waste or destroy another. Locke avoids the necessity of a collectivist economy by arguing that a person has the right to life, and implies that no collective can or should be consulted to decide whether a person may eat from a common store, thus fixing the moment of possession at the moment of harvest. In fact Locke goes further and points out that some private uses, such as the cultivation of land, actually produce wealth, in the sense of productive capacity, and therefore cultivating common land may be more in the nature of giving to the common than taking from it. Yet Locke does not consider that the harvesting of wood from an apple tree prevents any further harvest of apples from it, or that mining a hillside for coal prevents further use of it as, say, a vineyard. How may we decide ethically then, what mode of use to make of natural resources when they are mutually exclusive?

And yet the collectivist model does not offer much of a solution, because inasmuch as the implication of Lockean economics seems to be that people are ethically entitled to hoard as much as they please, regardless of the consequences to others, the collectivist model implies that all use of common resources be left, at best, to the tyranny of the majority, who might fairly decide to starve nonconformists to death rather than allow them property from the common. On the level of common sense, property is inevitable, but the implications of that seem to defy common sense all around.

So I conclude this examination with many more questions than answers, but one thing appears certain. Even from this very earliest stage, the concept of ownership and property was never conceived as the absolute right to do any and allthings with whatever property a person might have in his or her power. And that is something we might do well to reflect upon.