One strong argument in favor of heavily taxing the super-rich is that billionaires so often seem to have profoundly misguided ideas about how to spend their money. They waste it on solid gold toilets, or – like the Sacklers and the Russian oligarchs supporting Putin’s war – they use it to do harm. Most commonly, they fund wildly expensive vanity projects that gratify their egos while solidifying their position as masters of the universe who are socially, economically and physically insulated from the rest of us.
Among the most ambitious and widely publicized of these programs is the space station, SpaceX, that Elon Musk has built in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, not far from the Mexican border. Musk founded Space Exploration technologies in 2002. His stated aim is to produce rocket ships capable of transporting a hundred passengers and large amounts of supplies and equipment into outer space – to explore the moon and eventually, Musk hopes, to colonize Mars. The first Falcon 1 rockets were tested in 2006. Twenty-six rockets have been launched in 2023 alone.
The project made headlines recently when, on 20 April, Starship, the largest rocket ever made, exploded over the Gulf of Mexico, 4 minutes after take-off. Journalists and onlookers followed the countdown with a kind of breathless excitement and the so-called “rapid unscheduled disassembly” didn’t seem to matter all that much to the press, to Musk, or to his workers.
One kept hearing that success was not really the issue for Musk, that indeed failure was success in that it was (allegedly) a positive sign of progress. One could watch footage of SpaceX employees cheering the launch, their exuberance undiminished when the rocket blew up. Even some of Musk’s critics seem fascinated by the scope and hubris of his ambition to create a spaceship that would be reusable, like a plane, without a rocket’s expensive and annoying tendency to disintegrate on contact with the earth’s atmosphere.
Several weeks ago, at a party, I met a young woman whose family lives near Brownsville, Texas, not far from the launch site. She told me that SpaceX was, for local residents, a highly controversial and divisive project. It had brought new jobs to a poor and underemployed area, but now people had begun to complain because the land around the launch pad was littered with chunks of metal, shrapnel and engine parts that hadn’t made it into orbit.
Though conservation groups have noted the negative effect on local flora and fauna and the fact that the noise and light of the launches threatens the area’s delicate ecosystem, the FAA issued a 2014 report stating that the rockets posed no significant environmental risk. This conclusion seems, at best, counterintuitive, given that what fails to go up must come down – somewhere. When the largest rocket ever made plunged into the Gulf of Mexico, surely that must have come as something of a surprise to the fish.
Yet that possibility remained largely unexplored and underreported by major news sources until 21 April, when the New York Times ran an article about the havoc that had been created in the wake of the latest launch. Windows were broken in Port Isabel, Texas, 6 miles away from the site. And the surrounding area has been covered with a layer of dust, grime and debris.
It does make one wonder how the FAA reached its conclusion, and who signed off on the project. In some areas, including the rural county where I live, it can take months or even years for homeowners to get a permit to build a garage for their car. But apparently it is permissible for a billionaire to pollute a small city and to cause a number of native species to flee a particularly lovely section of the Rio Grande Valley in search of a quieter and less disruptive new home. F Scott Fitzgerald said that the rich are different from you and me; I suppose it’s naïve to observe that the rich also seem to have different zoning laws.
Those fresh-faced (and mostly young) people employed by Musk, cheering and high-fiving one another when the rocket launched – what do they think will happen to them? Do they believe they are destined to hang out with the boss on Mars? Will it dim their enthusiasm when they discover that Elon Musk has used them to arrange his interplanetary exit, along with 99 of his closest friends, when our planet is enduring the catastrophic effects of climate crisis – a disaster to which Musk and his minions will have contributed?
It deducts from the fascination of watching the rocket go up and then down to think about where those machine parts and all that rocket fuel are going. And it’s an additional buzzkill to contemplate the fortune flaming out in front of our eyes. It’s money that – were there some greater oversight on how the super-rich amuse themselves and extend their domain – could have been spent on, let’s say, eradicating poverty, on education, on housing and healthcare, or on attempting to solve any of the crises that we are facing, right here and now, on our fragile and ailing planet.