Could space pay for a universal basic income?
The idea of a universal basic income is gaining traction, in think tanks and in Silicon Valley, as a response to the rise of outsourced and automated labor. If everyone were guaranteed a minimum salary to meet the basic needs of food and shelter, so the argument goes, then people would be free to allocate their time according to their own preferences. A universal basic income could alleviate poverty, reward traditionally unpaid labor, and encourage entrepreneurial risk-taking.
But who would pay for such an expensive social experiment? Taxes on the wealthy and cuts to military spending are oft-cited solutions that seem unlikely to gain political momentum. Perhaps we should look at the looming space economy. The resources of space are plentiful, which international treaties say are for the benefit of all — but, for better or worse, could end up conveying their greatest benefits upon the wealthiest. If space is really the domain of all people and nations, then perhaps the wealth of space should be shared in the hands of everyone.
Why not plan for that, aligning the forces creating inequality with a solution to inequality? The emerging industries of space mining and tourism could potentially sustain a basic income for everyone.
Innovators like Elon Musk envision a future where advances in automation and artificial intelligence will eventually necessitate something like a universal basic income as human labor becomes obsolete. Musk and others entrenched in Silicon Valley culture have extrapolated from current trends in manufacturing efficiency that goods in the future will continue to decrease in price while simultaneously requiring less human oversight. If such a technocratic prophesy is at all accurate, then the price tag on living the good life might be substantially lower in the future than it is today.
Yet even if robotic automation ushers in a new era of affordable living, the means of funding a basic income is still unclear. Some entrepreneurs in California’s Bay Area feel a civic duty to contribute toward social welfare through a basic income and have begun funding monthly income in the $1,000 range for small groups and communities, financed through their own coffers. Other crowdsourced and government-sponsored experiments to provide a basic income are being developed in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. So far these tests have shown some anecdotal success in improving the quality of life for recipients of the basic income. Yet none of these efforts have demonstrated a method for scaling the income to meet the demands of an entire state or nation. UBI requires a new source of big money.
Enter the era of space tourism. The demand by wealthy patrons for pleasure flights into zero gravity has shifted from publicity stunts fueled by Russian rocketry to full-fledged commercial spacelines. The pains of birthing new technology have kept contenders like Virgin Galactic from delivering their initial launch schedule, but the eventual departure of this flight and others like it is only a matter of time. And the thrill of weightlessness is only the beginning: Space hotels are already in planning stages, with a handful of pre-paying customers already reserving their stay at the universe’s most exclusive establishments. For the rich and adventurous, space tourism provides an unparalleled luxury that only money can buy. At least one analysis suggests that space tourism could become a billion-dollar industry in the coming decades.
Space mining could be even more profitable, as companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources have convincingly demonstrated to their investors. Many asteroids are rich in precious metals like gold and platinum at greater abundances than typically found on Earth. Asteroids are also an important source of water and provide a much more cost-effective way of quenching the thirst of astronauts compared to sending water into space from Earth. The revenue to be had on a particular asteroid depends on its composition and distance. The online database asterank.com even keeps a running tally of candidates and estimated profit. With some asteroids showing returns in the trillions of dollars, the emergence of an asteroid mining industry could become the dominant driver of human space flight.
While space offers the promise of riches, the consistency of such actions with international agreements is less clear. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 stipulates that “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,” a mandate sometimes referred to as equitable sharing. Other provisions in the treaty prohibit claims of sovereignty in space “by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Drafted in the midst of the Cold War amid fears of expanding the conflict into space, the Outer Space Treaty today remains somewhat ambiguous as to the legality of commercial space flight activities. Does a corporate settlement on Mars count as “national appropriation” of space resources? How can asteroid mining provide “for the benefit of all countries” while still yielding a return to investors? A universal basic income could be the perfect mechanism for satisfying everyone.
Placing a tax on space tourists and miners would be different from taxing these activities on Earth because a space tax would be in the spirit and fulfillment of the equitable sharing requirements of the Outer Space Treaty. Nations with a fledgling or developing space program need not feel left behind if they can count on monetary remuneration from those who are first to profit from space resources. This approach could carry beyond low-Earth orbit hotels and asteroid mining colonies to even grander plans of constructing settlements on Mars. If the SpaceX corporation, for example, is the first to reach Mars and build a city, can they justly lay claim to such resources without violating the Outer Space Treaty? Enacting a use tax on the resources of space could alleviate such tensions by providing direct benefits of exploration to the people of Earth.
The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, known as the SPACE Act, was signed into law in 2015 and explicitly authorizes commercial exploration and harvest of asteroid resources. The recent NASA authorization act further directs the agency to enhance its partnership with commercial entities, which will only accelerate the development of a space economy. Some legal scholars remain concerned that these activities could be inconsistent with the Outer Space Treaty, although others contend that asteroid mining is sufficiently distinct from claiming sovereignty. Even so, the requirements for equitable sharing are conspicuously absent from the SPACE Act, favoring a traditional Earth-based model of distributing profit to shareholders only.
A basic income funded by commercial space flight might only pay a few hundred dollars per month, depending on actual profits. But even this sum of money could make a substantial difference in the lives of billions of people.
Since a booming space industry is still decades or further into the future, proponents of a universal basic income will still want to look elsewhere for revenue in the meantime. But if we truly believe that space is the province of humankind, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, or creed, then we must ensure that the resources of space do not fall into the hands of a select few. Instead, let the pioneers of the new space era also drive economic progress by contributing toward a universal basic income for everyone.
Jacob Haqq-Misra is a research scientist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. Follow him on Twitter @haqqmisra