Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review May 9, 2001 / 16 Iyar, 5761

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Those rotten Russian capitalists

The US should overcome its humiliation and look at the potential for space commerce revealed by Dennis Tito's orbit -- So now the Russians are too capitalist, are they? That at least seems to be the consensus in the west, where Nasa and the media alike are lambasting Russian officials for accepting $20m from the Californian investor Dennis Tito in exchange for a six-day ride on the International Space Station.

As it became clear, late last week, that Mr Tito would not only experience the dream of every western male but also make it safely back to the steppes of Kazakhstan, the outrage spread. The space tourist's report that his trip was "paradise" seemed to seal the damage: the critics now charge that the Russians have irreversibly Disneyified space, dirtying the pure air of a state-sector industry.

One might fault the Russians here for fanning the flame of American rage - "If he will sign a contract, every citizen of the planet can ride if his health permits," Yuri Grigoryev of Russia's Energia rocket company told The Washington Post. "The station is open to commercialisation." Mr Grigoryev might just as well have said: "Take that, Land of the Free!"

Still, the attackers are too hasty. Space exploration these days is, after all, as much an innovative and scientific project as a military one. And when it comes to innovation, the profit motive has tended to show up the public sector every time. What holds on earth could hold at the Final Frontier.

Consider the objections levied against Mr Tito and his Russian co-conspirators.

First, there is the complaint that only professionals should be allowed to travel in space. This argument belies the record of the space race, which in fact is littered with examples of rank amateurs - and animals - entering orbit. One thinks of Laika the dog, or Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher who went down with the Challenger. Space "fairness", as author Tom Wolfe long ago pointed out in The Right Stuff, is an inherently risible concept: "The ape was an astronaut! Perhaps the female ape who backed him up deserved the next flight. Let her fly, godammit! She has earned it as much as the seven human ones." Besides, Mr Tito in fact is something of a space professional - in his younger days he put in years at Nasa's Pasadena jet propulsion laboratory, which means that he is a rocket scientist.

Second, it is said that permitting civilian guests to come along is too dangerous. The first reply here should be: too dangerous for whom? Military and space exercises are always and inherently risky for the professional participants and for innocent bystanders as well. Claiming that the additional distraction of a guest will always make the mission more dangerous suggests that the hosts cannot know their own limits. This is probably wrong. It is a sure bet, for example, that the US Navy is currently rewriting its rule books to prevent a repeat of its Greeneville disaster, when a US submarine surfaced and killed nine Japanese on a fishing boat. And the cash tourism supplies will also allow expensive safety improvements - $20m is enough to upgrade a lot of equipment.

If the issue is the fate of the paying passenger, the safety argument becomes even weaker. Like any Ferrari owner, Mr Tito knew what he was undertaking. The choice here should be up to the individual. Many will decline - most Americans, after all, will not drive a car without an airbag, let alone fly Aeroflot or ride Soyuz into the ether. Before Mr Tito signed away all rights to lawsuits, many Americans were charging that trips like his would make the military, or Nasa, vulnerable to troubling litigation. But if the US cannot reconcile its adventure culture with its litigious one, it is probably the latter that needs reforming.

Third, critics argue it is wrong to sell a public good. The western taxpayer is footing a good share of the cost of the space station; why should Mr Tito, a private citizen, benefit from that? The first response here is simple: he should not. And from the point of the Russian taxpayers, he did not: they got $20m for their hospitality. If Nasa had not worked itself into such a huff over his trip, Nasa lawyers might have thought to write their agency into the contract with Mr Tito.

But there is a more profound answer here. It is that governments always sell public goods when it suits them. Think of Senator John Glenn's 1990s ride, a blatant bid for continued funding. The only difference here is that instead of selling those goods to a lawmaker or another person of political influence, the Russian government sold to a citizen for cash.

Lastly, it is alleged that the Russians will use the money for dark purposes. Perhaps. But the incentive of a steady cash stream from late-life-crisis millionaires is more likely to lure the Russians into the relatively benign business of space tourism. Commerce reduces bellicosity - at least, that is the case the west makes for engagement with China - and money is fungible. A Russia funded by geriatric thrillseekers may no longer feel the need to hawk its armoury and intellectual capital to rogue states.

The real trouble with the critics' claims, though, is that they obscure the benefits that space tourism may bring. Fans of the private sector have long pointed to Nasa's legendary inefficiencies. If business had been allowed to compete with Nasa, they argue, there would already be time-shares for sale on Mars.

They are probably right. But you do not have to be a blinkered libertarian to see the value of a little private-sector activity in the space sector: the prod of competition can only make government space programmes better. It is downright embarrassing that Washington must sit for lessons on markets at the knee of officials from a formerly communist nation. But American officials need to look beyond their humiliation to see the potential here. Come on, Nasa, snap to. Dollars can buy more of the right stuff.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


05/07/01: Why tax havens provide shelter for everyone
05/04/01: Middle classes pay for get-the-rich folly
05/01/01: Money can't buy happiness? Think again.
04/26/01: Calling America's rogues and entrepreneurs
04/19/01: High earners right to feel lonely at the top
04/11/01: The right must learn the comfort of strangers
04/04/01: When domestic law arrives by the back door
03/30/01: A Lexus tax cut suits the jalopy driver
03/27/01: The unchallenged dominance of King Dollar
03/20/01: Natural selection of an intellectual aristocracy
03/16/01: The hidden danger of a regulatory recession
03/14/01: Is the American condition that boring? Why so many Oscar nominated movies aren't set in America
03/07/01: Trampling on the theory of path dependence
03/05/01: Fighting the good fight
03/01/01: It is time for Fannie and Freddie to grow up
02/27/01: IT's important
02/22/01: The guilty conscience of America's millionaires
02/14/01: The benefits of helping the 'rich'
02/09/01: The Danger and Promise of the Bush Schools Plan
02/05/01: Crack and Compassion
01/31/01: Debt is good
01/29/01: Clueless
01/24/01: A gloomy end for a half-hearted undertaking
01/17/01: The challenge of an ally with its own mind
01/15/01: An unexpected American family portrait
01/10/01: A fitting legacy for America's beloved dictator
01/08/01: The trick of tax 'convenience'
01/03/01: Time to stop blaming Greenspan over taxes
12/11/00: So smart they're dumb
12/06/00: How economic bad news came good for Bush
12/04/00: The Boies factor
11/30/00: "The inevitable demands for recounts erupted like acne…"
11/28/00: Fair play and the rules of the electoral game
11/23/00: The shining prospect beyond a cloudy election
11/21/00: Try the Cleveland model
11/16/00: A surprising winner emerges in the US election
11/09/00: Those powerful expats
11/07/00: What's right for America versus what works
11/02/00: Time to turn off big government's autopilot
10/30/00: Canada beating America in financial sensibility
10/26/00: When progressiveness leads to backwardness
10/24/00: The most accurate poll
10/19/00: The Middle East tells us the hawks were right
10/17/00: The split personalities of America's super rich
10/10/00: 'Equity Rights' or Wake up and Smell the Starbucks
10/04/00: Trapped in the basement of global capitalism
09/21/00: The final act of a grand presidential tragedy
09/21/00: Europeans strike back at the fuel tax monster. Should Americans follow?
09/18/00: First steps to success
09/13/00: America rejects the human rights transplant
09/07/00: Minimum wage, maximum cost
09/05/00: Prudent Al Gore plans some serious spending
08/31/00: A revolution fails to bring power to the people
08/28/00: A reali$tic poll
08/21/00: "I Goofed"
08/16/00: Part of the union, but not part of the party
08/09/00: Silicon Alley Secrets
08/02/00: Radical Republicans warm up for Philadelphia
07/31/00: I'll Cry if I Want To
07/27/00: Cold warrior of the new world
07/25/00: The Estate Tax will drop dead
07/18/00: Shooting down the anti-missile defence myths
07/14/00: A convenient punchbag for America's leaders
07/07/00: How to destroy the pharmaceutical industry
07/05/00: Patriots and bleeding hearts
06/30/00: Candidates beware: New Washington consensus on robust growth stands the old wisdom on its head
06/28/00: White America's flight to educational quality
06/26/00: How Hillary inspired the feminist infobabes

© 2001, Financial Times