Where No One Has Gone Before

We found an article at PhysOrg about one of our favorite off-topic subjects: All of humanity should share in the space mining boom. They say it was written by Morgan Saletta and Kevin Orrman-Rossiter of the University Of Melbourne.

It’s a copy of this blog article. We looked up the authors at the university’s website. Saletta’s field is “Historical and Philosophical Studies.” Orrman-Rossiter’s says “UoM Commercial Ltd” — whatever that is. Anyway, PhysOrg thinks their blog article is worth repeating.

Before we get started with it, we’ll remind you of a couple of earlier posts we wrote about this: In How Not To Enter the Space Age, we ranted about misguided, deranged international agreements, like the the 1967 Outer Space Treaty about the ownership of the wealth to be found beyond the Earth. Such assets are supposed to be “global commons.” We said:

[W]ithout a clearly defined and dependable system of property rights, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to justify the immense investment required to develop the potential of resources on other worlds and their moons. … Who will bring law and order to the solar system? Some bloated, corrupt, and utterly worthless committee of the United Nations? Some treaty signed by nations who may not even be involved in such activities? The European Parliament? The World Bank? A bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels?

Later, in Property Rights in Outer Space, Revisited, we discussed the SPACE Act of 2015 (full name: Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015), which receded from earlier law and provided that private companies and states can maintain property rights over any resources brought to Earth. We approved, and said:

[W]ho in his right mind would invest in such a venture if he couldn’t benefit from it? Yes, it’s true that mining companies will go out there and explore in the hope of generating profits. But so what? There will also be benefits for the rest of humanity. Everyone understands what happens to prices when needed materials are scarce. The opposite happens when resources are abundant — everyone benefits! But if no one has the incentive to get out there to explore, then why would anyone bother?

But international bodies are still pondering the issue. We asked:

Will the bureaucrats and diplomats yield to the grubby reality of economics, or will they cling to the “lofty” goal of declaring that the resources of the solar system are the common property of all mankind?

Now that you know your Curmudgeon’s views — we are firmly in favor of free enterprise, property rights, and a market-oriented economy, properly governed by laws against fraudulent practices, of course — let’s get to the new PhysOrg article. They say:

One solitary asteroid might be worth trillions of dollars in platinum and other metals. Exploiting these resources could lead to a global boom in wealth, which could raise living standards worldwide and potentially benefit all of humanity. There are already companies, such as Planetary Resources, hoping to make mining in space a reality. … However, behind the utopian rhetoric and dazzling dreams of riches lie some very real problems.

Yes indeed, and they’re not talking about technological problems. Let’s read on:

The framework of international space law is given by the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which entered into force in 1967. Among its main principals, the OST includes these statements:

• the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind

• outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means

Utopian schemes like that are often very real problems. PhysOrg continues:

Because the OST is generally interpreted as preventing anything like private fee-simple ownership, it is sometimes claimed to be an obstacle to commercial ventures in space. But such claims simply do not hold water.

Those claims don’t hold water? Really? Here’s more:

There are numerous terrestrial examples where resources are profitably exploited in the absence of fee-simple ownership. Governments routinely licence companies to engage in timber extraction, mining, offshore oil exploration and other activities, receiving royalties payments on production.

That system is functional — sometimes — although it’s less desirable than privately owned land. Bureaucracies have no economic incentive to do anything except preserve their jobs. But even bureaucrats occasionally make sensible decisions. However, pollution of publicly-owned land can be a major problem, because the miners or oil drillers aren’t protecting their own property. Moving along:

Nevertheless, some proponents of mining in outer space argue for serious modification or an end to the Outer Space Treaty and claim, against the evidence, that without fee-simple ownership, there is no incentive for commercial exploitation. The Unites States’ Space Act of 2015 was just one volley – and a deliberately vague one at that – in this ongoing international debate.

No evidence? Have the authors bothered to talk to anyone who might be interested in financing such a venture? Another excerpt:

The riches exist, but how will humanity benefit from mining in outer space, or for that matter, other global commons such as the deep sea floor? Behind the lofty rhetoric of benefits to humanity, there is a dark shadow of voodoo economics, the shambling, walking dead figure of trickle down economics – and the possibility of a world where a few trillionaires enjoy the view from space while others barely eke a living on its surface.

What the authors dismiss as “voodoo economics” and “trickle down economics” is what the rest of us refer to as the free enterprise system. So now we know how the authors think. On with their article:

In the common heritage of space, with multiple state and private actors engaging in exploration and potentially exploitation, international cooperation and oversight will benefit all. There is a balanced, pragmatic approach that will promote commercial and profit driven activities, while also producing tangible benefits to all of humanity. … That model is the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation (APFC) created in 1976, and its unique “citizen’s dividend”. The APF is a resource wealth fund, which derives its revenue primarily from leases on oil fields.

The Alaska Permanent Fund collects royalties and pays dividends to the citizens of Alaska. How do the authors think this concept could work regarding space exploration? They gush for several paragraphs about their grand idea, but a few excerpts should suffice:

We need an international body similar to the International Seabed Authority, which was established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or the International Telecommunications Union, which allocates satellite orbits. … This body could license outer space resources and levy a royalty on production, which is part of standard business practice between petroleum and other mining companies and governments here on Earth. … And every single citizen on Earth, say aged 18 or above, would receive a dividend on a yearly basis as their rightful share as owners of the common province of humankind.Our model doesn’t provide a handout, or a welfare cheque, or charity from a trillionaire philanthopist; it pays every owner in a global commons a share of what is rightfully theirs.

Okay, that’s enough. And so, dear reader, if you were running a mining company, would you be interested in financing the titanic effort to explore the asteroid belt or the moons of Jupiter, under the wise and benign supervision — hee hee! — of an international body for the benefit of everyone on Earth — including the Amazonian tribes and the villagers of Bangladesh, who probably never even heard of the asteroids?

We have, shall we say, a few doubts that such an academically contrived regime will result in a flow — or even a trickle — of much-needed resources to Earth. But maybe we’re wrong. Perhaps international bureaucracies, not free enterprise, will boldly go where no one has gone before.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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5 responses to “Where No One Has Gone Before

  1. Sorry don’t buy it! Spain did not finance Chris just to share the wealth of America. The only way sharing will work is if the new world order finances the push into space for resources that will then be shared among the 1%-ers that are in power! What? You think the common person will share in the wealth??? HHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

  2. What space mining boom? The U.S. currently has to buy a ticket from another country to even get someone to low earth orbit. Congress has made sure that no American travel to the moon since the 1970s, and we are many decades from hauling minerals in bulk quantities from, say, the moon. Predictions about the economics decades in the future are wild speculation.
    Remember, the father of American rocketry, Robert Goddard thought that while technically feasible, getting a rocket to the moon would cost ar least a million dollars. . . . .

  3. “…it pays every owner in a global commons a share of what is rightfully theirs.” I suspect Marvin the Martian would disagree with that.
    Isn’t the model of the claim-mine system used in the west the preferred way to go? You find the stuff, a government helps protect your claim and everyone lives in peace. Government is needed to make sure materials are brought back to Earth in a safe manner as well. Other than that the primary benefit to the vulgar masses would be rare metals that are now slightly more common with lower prices allowing more uses. There is a benefit to mining something that would foul up our own little nest. Such a mining operation would be a huge financial risk for any company to undertake it. It is very likely they’ll be like the ’49ers and the only one who makes money are the guys selling levis jeans and shovels.

  4. robert van bakel

    I like visiting your site Curmudgeon, I really do, your ‘no prisoner’ approach to creationists often causes me to chuckle. However, when you go into ‘full blown’ Libertarian mode, you leave me some what at a loss.
    Space and the vast potential of space promises would never have been even looked at by private enterprise as a source of wealth, at any time in our collective history, had not two massive bureaucracies been at each others throats. Today private enterprise limps into space on technology developed by huge bureaucracies and paid for by a avaricious IRS, or Communist Party, if you want.
    When will “Space X” et al. begin to develop their own innovations and stop depending on tax payer financed government developed technology? More to the point, when will their well developed private enterprise concsiences, start to pay a dividend to the public for their freeloading.
    Your vision of ‘trickle down’ is also sevrely warped; we’re still waiting for that promise to be made real, ever since chief “voodoo” master Reagan made it!

  5. Dear curmudgeon, like some of the above – I enjoy your rants…and actually I agree with you here. The incentive of making a profit is what spurs ventures like these – especially ones so technically challenging as mining in outer space. If they put up the capital, they should reap the rewards…no disagreement from this militant left winger.

    But seriously – trickle down economics and voodoo economics are bull[****]. I mean really. 30 years of economic evidence proves it.

    That is all.
    Best wishes,