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Who’s paying the price for billionaires to go to space?

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BEARDIE’S ON THE MOON

So, the exciting news is that Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo won the which-billionaire-can-first-get-into-space competition, beating Jeff Bezos’ New Shepard by a whisker. If Bezos is upset about it – which some slightly undignified twitter jibing suggested he might be – there is presumably consolation to be gained from glimpsing at his net worth, which is currently increasing by twice Branson’s entire stock of wealth, every week.

  • “I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do,” tweeted Branson, alongside a video of himself in his little space plane, earbud floating alongside his beard.

Now, I have three thoughts about this, and that’s leaving aside the question of whether Branson even got to space at all, because I don’t care. 

Firstly, it’s pretty much irrelevant for anyone else to “just imagine” what they can do in the context of Branson’s flight, because the only reason he can do it is because he’s loaded. He didn’t cobble together a spaceship out of wire, lumber and genius like some astronautical Wright Brother, but out of years of expensive construction only accessible to someone who’s already insanely rich, and all built on decades of intense research.

Secondly, the “next generation of dreamers” reference is bizarre, since the last generation of dreamers already did this, and did it better. Literally six decades ago, when Branson was a schoolboy, Alan Shepard flew into space and reached an altitude twice as high as the perma-tanned billionaire just did. And even that wasn’t all that great because Yuri Gagarin had already gone into orbit. Five decades ago, Shepard was playing golf on the moon. Three decades ago, the first reusable spacecraft went into orbit and back and was three times the size of SpaceShipTwo. In the context of that, Branson’s hyperbole looks – to me – a bit silly.

Thirdly, and most importantly, who’s actually paying for this? Billionaires don’t send rockets into space because they’re narcissists with more money than sense, or not only because of that, but because they’ve identified a way to make money out of it, and Branson’s business model is “filling the world with astronauts” by selling lots of tickets for trips on his little plane. The tourists won’t actually go anywhere, primarily because – absent a base on Mars, the moon, Jupiter or at least access to the International Space Station – there isn’t actually anywhere for them to go, and the little plane couldn’t fly that high even if there was. That means they’re just buying tickets for round trips up to the edge of the atmosphere and back, with flights due to be departing 400 times a year. In terms of trying to prevent runaway carbon emissions, that is almost as bad an idea as racing to see who can burn the rainforest quickest.

  • “This has to be stopped! Given the climate emergency we don’t have the carbon budget for the elite’s planetary escapism,” is how Adam Tooze put it on twitter

If there are indeed profits to be made from space tourism, they will accrue to Branson; but all of us will pay for the damage caused by climate change resulting from this grotesque display of conspicuous consumption. That realization has rather taken the edge off my enthusiasm for his little trip, to be honest, not least because the issue of how inequality affects efforts to fight the climate crisis was urgent enough even before billionaires started zooming into space to take selfies.

The average American takes just over two flights per year, but those flights are very unevenly distributed. More than half of Americans don’t fly at all (and that is based on this research from 2017, before the pandemic, so the proportion is probably now lower still). A third of adults take between one and five flights each, which works out as them taking roughly a third of all flights. And an eighth of adults buy 68 percent of all the air tickets, which means that the vast majority of the emissions from aviation – the consequences of which are being borne by everyone, not least in the extreme weather currently afflicting the West Coast – are the fault of a tiny proportion of the population. 

The situation is pretty similar in the UK, where the top 15 percent takes 70 percent of all flights, and the situation has got worse thanks to Covid and the increasing popularity of private jets among people that can afford them.

  • “While holidays and air travel have been devastated by COVID 19, the private jet sector has enjoyed a mini boom with many customers using private aircraft for the first time. No longer just used by the rich and famous, families of all sizes and even cats and dogs have been taking the private route,” enthuses this article from earlier this year, which also recommends using a helicopter if you want to avoid traffic.

If you’re accustomed to flying in cattle class, you may be reading about such antics with envy. But, looked at more widely, you are the elite too. More than 80 percent of the world’s population has never been on a plane at all, which means that all the world’s emissions from aviation – two percent of all greenhouse gas emissions – are the fault of a vanishingly small proportion of its wealthiest residents. 

So what to do about this?

It is great that the European Union is looking to levy tax on aviation fuel, so kerosene will at least face the same taxation as fuels used in other modes of transport. It is clearly absurd that an oligarch can fill up his private jet tax-free, while the rest of us have to pay tax to fill up our cars. This isn’t an easy change to make, however. Aviation fuel has been tax free since 1944 under a treaty designed in the dark days of World War Two to increase international trust and travel, and there is a complex web of treaties governing how it is treated.

It is not, however, enough simply to bring taxation of air travel in line with other travel. We need to sharply reduce the number of flights being taken, and do it as soon as possible. I’m a big fan of this 2015 proposal from the UK’s New Economics Foundation, which argues for a special tax on frequent flyers, which would get higher the more you fly. The first flight you buy wouldn’t be taxed at all, but by the time you’ve bought nine, you’re paying around $500 to the government for the privilege (although this is a British calculation, so they’re doing it in pounds).

  • “A progressive tax on frequent flying could play a significant role in restraining demand for flights, while at the same time tending to distribute those flights more equally across the income spectrum,” the report’s authors conclude.

It would also raise significantly more money than the current approach does.

And what should we do about billionaires who burn huge quantities of kerosene to blast themselves pointlessly to the edge of space? If they can’t think of anything better to do with their money, I vote we raise taxes, take it off them, and do something more useful with it ourselves. We could start by building renewable energy installations, insulating homes, and creating greener transport infrastructure, and see where that took us.

UKRAINE REFORMS

Ukraine had a good European soccer championships, reaching the last eight for only the second time (and giving me a team to cheer for after Wales went out), and there is also decent news from the anti-corruption front. The country hasn’t properly reformed its SBU security service since 1992, when it had just been hived out of the old KGB, and the institution has long been an obstacle in the road towards building a more modern law enforcement system.

Parliament is currently debating a new law to govern the SBU, with encouraging prospects. However, it is far from perfect and needs further amendment, as Olena Scherban and Olena Halushka of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre explain.

  • “If the proposed reforms extend the SBU’s counterintelligence functions while simultaneously not removing investigative powers effectively, this may actually serve to make the security service more powerful and secretive than ever. Nevertheless, it is still not too late for MPs to address these significant concerns, and to ensure that the criminal procedure code is amended without further delay. On the thirtieth year of Ukrainian independence, now would be a good time to finally get this long overdue and strategically vital reform right.”

Come on, Ukraine, you can do it.

WHAT I’M READING

I couldn’t help taking a look at Vladimir Putin’s magnum opus on Ukraine, which declares that Russians and Ukrainians are one nation and only sundered by the meddling of foreigners. It stretches interminably over the kind of word count only someone with his own web site and no obvious demands on his time can afford, and the overall effect is a bit like being pinned in a corner by an “anti-imperialist”, and having the world explained at you for hours, except without the chance of being rescued by his needing the toilet.

It covers everything you’d expect, finding lots of room to mention the good intentions of the Soviet Union, while minimizing any suggestion it committed genocide against Ukrainians; finding lots of room to condemn Western interference in Ukraine, but not enough to mention Russia invading Crimea, etc., etc., etc.

Somehow we’ve got desensitized to this kind of boorishness from Putin, but try to imagine any other world leader writing something equivalent about their neighbors: Joe Biden denying Canadians are a nation; Boris Johnson declaring that Ireland was unfairly ripped from English rule in the 1920s; the chancellor of Germany declaring that Austrians and Germans are actually one people, and should be united. You get the point.

Anyway, I’ve read it so you don’t have to, but it is interesting that, although in Russian he writes “на Украине” in the deliberately infantilizing way that Russian nationalists prefer, the English version of the piece consistently refers to “Ukraine” without the definite article. It might not seem like much but, since he was starting from a position of complete disrespect, it does count as progress of sorts. Or perhaps he’s got a subversive translator, subtly undermining his message from within. That seems just as likely, to be honest.

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Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough is an author and journalist from Wales, who specializes in writing about financial crime, often when it has links to the former Soviet Union. His most recent book is Moneyland, why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back, and he is currently trying to write another one despite lockdown.

@OliverBullough