Ideas

The New Conquistadors? What To Make Of The Billionaire Space Racers

Bezos, Branson, Musk. The billionaires throwing untold resources into private space travel may prove, in the end, to be visionaries. But they're also blind, it would seem, to real-world problems here on planet Earth.

The launch of Blue Origin in July 2021
Eduardo Barajas Sandoval

-OpEd-

There is no shortage of people hailing the tycoon-space-adventurers Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk as modern-day equivalents of Christopher Columbus, Americo Vespucci and Ferdinand Magellan. Only in this case, the quest to cross new frontiers comes against a backdrop of climate change and a global pandemic.

With so many people asking how they can free themselves from all the current restrictions on their happiness, these narcissistic businessmen are going ahead and doing it — treating themselves to an exhilarating and no-expenses spared day out in space. They may be immensely farsighted visionaries, but they're also blind to the basic problems of this world.

The common denominator and symbolic value of their endeavors is in a desire to free themselves from the law of gravity, a reality that, for astronauts aside, is the one law that's applicable to everybody, everywhere on Earth. Or was, at any rate.

Like the explorers of old, who showed the way to unknown continents and opened our eyes to the Earth's roundness, tycoon travelers are in turn anticipating future conquests beyond the Earth's magnetic field. They have worked in parallel and in competition with sovereign states, most recently with their blessing. For now, it's about introducing one more option in luxury leisure. But in time, these trips may lead to spending more time or living in space, and finally, settling on other planets. Who knows what else may come of this process, as we are merely at its outset.

Richard Branson aboard Unity 22 — Photo: Virgin Galactic/ZUMA

Three top entrepreneurs, who have each achieved phenomenal success in their respective fields, are presently in competition. Branson, the founder of the Virgin brands, is a longstanding fan of acrobatic feats and a pioneer in innovative services. Bezos of Amazon has discovered new forms of selling all manner of items. And Musk of Tesla and PayPal has triumphed in finding new ways of utilizing scientific knowledge. Together, they may be ushering the world into an era that will focus on objectives far removed from this planet. They have resources and scientific and logistical backing hitherto available only to national governments, but unlike governments, they are unconstrained by any potential political fallout from their actions or failures.

As in any time of conquest, each party wants to be the first to gain useful and awe-inspiring results. And they will all want to do it their way, taking full advantage of the lack of rules or set parameters restricting their actions. Just as six centuries ago the planet was "fresh" and exposed to discoveries and conquests, the fresh territory today is the space above and beyond the magnetic field that pins the rest of us to the globe.

They may be immensely farsighted visionaries, but they're also blind to the basic problems of this world.

With Blue Origin, Bezos announced that he would be heading where the first U.S. and Russian astronauts — back when it really was a remarkable feat — had gone before. He planned his trip for July 20, to commemorate the moon landing, but ignored the ancient Greek counsel not to divulge your plans ahead of time, lest anyone listening should beat you to it. And that's exactly what Branson decided to do, by rushing to get his own space jaunt off the ground just ahead of that, on July 11. Musk, for his part, has yet to leave the Earth, but his Space X will soon get its turn.

Without joining the quibbling over who flew higher or first, this is the start of a much longer trip. The billionaires have commercial priorities now and perhaps bigger ambitions in the future, with talk of regular tourism on the edge of the atmosphere (Branson), settlements on the moon (Bezos), or colonizing and even peacefully dying on Mars (Musk).

Amazon's Jeff Bezos in front of his Blue Origin rocket — Photo: Chuck Bigger/Space Symposium via ZUMA Press Wire

This incipient space race is, like any grand enterprise, filled with propaganda, expectations ad achievements, but also frustrations and failures. As Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft who financed the SpaceShipOne project in 2004, said, this is a challenge that will keep attracting adventurers who will push it toward unknown frontiers.

Like their 16th-century forebears, the new explorers will act at times on their own account and at others, under state patronage. Bezos, Branson and Musk have already received assignments and signed multi-million dollar deals with public agencies to develop technologies and build equipment of use not just in space, but to armies. As always..

Presently there is a marvelous, creative anarchy around these endeavors, have yet to be regulated or subject to public debate and scrutiny. At some point though, intervention may be needed to prevent this bubbling progress being diverted to "defensive," or better said martial, ends. It is the eternal play between the exercise of freedom and the need for order.

It is all fascinating, encouraging and intriguing, but also indicative of humanity's essential contradictions: Some reach for the sky as others are mired in the most basic problems of survival, on a planet that is more vulnerable than ever. Resources are needed to meet the health and nutrition needs of millions of people. All the while, these billionaires throw countless money toward flying through the clouds.

That may be why the website change.org garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures for the idea of not allowing Jeff Bezos to return to Earth. And if these mega-moguls do insist on going to space, perhaps they should just stay there. Because who knows, a few centuries from now, people might to topple their statues too, just as they do now with monuments to the old-guard conquistadors.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
Economy

Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ