What would an interplanetary economy look like?

JDN 2457397

Today’s post is the second Reader’s Choice topic, chosen by a vote of my Patreons.

Remember, you too can vote on future topics if you pledge at least $10 per month.

Actually, there was a tie between two topics; since I was in an SF mood today, I decided to do this one as the official Reader’s Choice post. The second, “The challenges and possibilities of a global basic income”, I’ll do as a later post. (If I don’t get around to that before the next vote, you can of course always vote for it again.)

Will we ever colonize outer space? Many people thought we’d be there by now.

In Blade Runner, released in 1982, Roy was built and deployed to the outer colonies in 2015, which you may remember as the year that just ended.

Predictions of the future are often wrong, but predictions from the 20th century of the 21st century seem to be consistently overoptimistic about technology. In a past Idiot Free Zone post, I hypothesize that this is due to the confusion between exponential and logistic growth.

Paul Krugman is also a big fan of SF (it is actually about as likely that I’d run into Krugman at Worldcon as at an economics conference), and he wrote a paper on the possibility of interstellar trade way back in 1978. I think he’s kind of satirizing economic theorists actually; he uses sophisticated mathematics to address a problem that doesn’t exist in the real world—just like they do.

I think we will eventually at least reach the point of interplanetary colonization, if not actually interstellar. To begin, let me emphasize that vital distinction. Mars is currently about 60 million kilometers away at its closest approach. The core of the Alpha Centauri system is 4.24 light-years away, which is about 40 trillion kilometers. The distance from Ann Arbor to Toledo is about 84 kilometers. Thus, the difficulty of going to Alpha Centauri is about as much higher than that of going to Mars as the difficulty of going to Mars is compared to going from Ann Arbor to Toledo—each a factor of 700,000 times the distance.

With current technology, we can send robots to Mars (how cool is that? We did get some of the future we were promised). A typical trip takes about half a year. It costs us about $2.5 billion to do that, though India somehow managed to at least make Mars orbit for $75 million. Even if we use the $2.5 billion figure, that still means our current economic output the US and Europe alone could support hundreds of missions per year if we were willing to pay for it. (Devote the entire US military budget to NASA and we could land a new robot on Mars every day.) Interplanetary travel is most definitely feasible.

Interstellar travel on the other hand, is still far out of reach. In principle we are limited by the speed of light; in fact, it’s a good deal worse than that. The fastest we have ever gotten a spacecraft leaving the Solar System is about 60,000 km/h; at that speed it would take almost one billion hours to get to Alpha Centauri, which is over 100,000 years. We will need substantial breakthroughs in spacecraft propulsion before we can even consider sending anything to even the nearest stars. (I wouldn’t give up hope completely, however; in 1901 someone could just as well have criticized H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon on the grounds that no one will ever invent a propulsion system powerful enough to reach the moon.)

By the time we manage interstellar travel, our technology will be so much more advanced it’s hard to even imagine what things will be like. But interplanetary travel we could probably do right now.

So let’s suppose we do in fact establish colonies on other planets—most likely Mars and Mercury, as well as several moons of Jupiter and Saturn. What would our economy look like once we did?

For a decidedly Game of Thrones take on this situation, see The Expanse. Their scientific accuracy is quite good (although they still have sound in space!); so far, their economic accuracy seems pretty good as well, but so far I haven’t seen enough yet to be sure.
One thing I think The Expanse does get right is that asteroid mining is a vital part of the interplanetary trade network. The thing that’s currently keeping us from colonizing other planets is a lack of economic incentives to bear the enormous cost of space travel. Asteroid mining is one thing that might actually provide those incentives, if we can leap just a few more technological hurdles in terms of mining robots and spacecraft propulsion.

Many asteroids contain metals such as silver, gold and platinum at concentrations 20 times as great as anything found on the surface of the Earth. The amount of iron and nickel they contain is even larger; we could supply the entire iron production of the Earth (3.2 billion tonnes) with a single asteroid, 16 Psyche, for the next million years. That one asteroid over 2e19 kg of nearly pure iron-nickel, which is 200 quadrillion tonnes. Many asteroids also contain large concentrations of other useful and rare metals, such as lithium and neodymium.

It is unlikely we would actually try to colonize asteroids (they do in The Expanse, but I’m not sure I buy it). None are large enough to support an atmosphere (kind of by definition), so we’d have to build space stations large enough for permanent habitation. With such ludicrous amounts of iron all around us, that might be possible; but would it be cost-effective? I think it’s more likely that we would have temporary habitats, able to support people for several months or maybe a few years, and people would basically do “tours of duty” working in the asteroids, and then return home. This is similar to how we use space stations right now; you can live there for a long time—the standing record is over a year—but nobody lives their whole life there. It might be a sort of “seasonal” work, where the seasons are decided by large-scale orbital mechanics rather than local planetary axial tilt. (We might have to start doing “seasonal adjustments” to statistics based on this!) Provided that the workers are paid a substantial portion of the spoils—by no means a certainty, as we all know from sweatshops around the world—this work could easily be lucrative enough that you become a millionaire after a tour or two and then retire.

But they might well return home to Mars, since the orbital transfer from the asteroid belt to Mars is considerably easier (it has what we call a lower “delta-v”) than the same transfer all the way back to Earth, and the launch and landing are even easier still. Mars does support an atmosphere—currently very thin and not breathable, but that could change with terraforming. It is also large enough to spread out with room for many homes, greenhouses, power plants, etc., and has enough gravity to at least keep human bodies as a basic level of functioning without too much additional support. (Mars’ gravity is about 40% that of Earth’s.)

Of course, most of the products we make are going to be used on Earth—most of everything is going to be used on Earth, probably for centuries to come. It’s possible that we’ll end up like the British Empire did where the colonies are more populous than the source, but it will take a long time for that to happen. (Moreover, the primary reason—cheap, fertile agricultural land—will not apply unless we happen upon a habitable planet or get very good at terraforming.) This means we will need to ship something from Mars to Earth. But since the delta-v is exceptionally high, we’ll want to ship as little as possible. I think this means that we will do most of the refinement and even manufacturing on Mars, and then ship prefabricated components to Earth. Any process that removes mass will be done on Mars, to minimize the amount of mass that needs to make the trip to Earth.

And what will Earth provide in return? As we import this huge quantity of metal (or metal components), what will we export in return?
Well, one possibility is that we won’t—at first, we (by which I mean “our corporations”) will simply retain ownership of the entire supply chain and do all the accounting as though production were being done entirely on Earth. We won’t think of it as “trade”, just as corporations engaging in a series of prospecting and mining ventures. At least at first.

Yet this will become increasingly unwieldy, just as it became unwieldy for the British Empire to retain control of all its colonies and collect their taxes for the Crown. Communication between Mars, Earth, and the asteroid belt will be relatively fast—a few hours delay at worst—but travel will be very slow and very expensive. Local institutions will form and assert themselves, and may eventually topple the corporate managers, expropriate their assets, and create new governments. The corporations could see the rebellion coming a year in advance from the transmissions, and still be powerless to stop it because the ships will take too long to arrive.

Once new local governments form, we will start thinking of it as “trade”. So what will we be trading? To some extent people on Mars might simply accept Earth currency (perhaps US Dollars, or Euros, or as I like to imagine some unified currency, perhaps the Atlantic Union Dollar); but only if they can then use that Earth currency to buy things they actually need. What will they actually need?

Food, for one. Some amount of food production will be done on Mars by necessity—you can’t survive if you depend entirely on imported food to survive. But it will be expensive, and most likely nutrient-dense but tasteless and monotonous genetically-engineered vegetable products. People will get tired of eating bricks of processed Aresoy(TM) for the 17,000th time and will crave real food; Earth will respond by selling them frozen steaks at $12,000 per kilogram. Probably only luxury foods will be imported, actually; why spend $11,900 for a hamburger when you can spend $12,000 for filet mignon? Nominal income on Mars will be huge—millionaires will be ubiquitous. At purchasing power parity, it may not be so impressive, once you account for the ridiculous cost of food and housing. It’ll be like living in Silicon Valley—on steroids.

Water, perhaps. This one is not as obvious as it may seem. While Earth does have the largest concentration of liquid water (except for a couple of moons of the gas giants), there is plenty of ice in them thar asteroids. It will most likely be cheaper (albeit not cheap) to obtain water by capturing and melting down asteroid ice than to ship it all the way from Earth.

But I think the most important Earth export will beculture. The main products that Martians will want to buy from us will be books, movies, songs, video games, hologram simulations. They will be blueprints, patents, 3D printer schematics. Those who travel to Mars will be bold, adventurous, many of them loners and misfits—but deep down they will still sometimes long for the comforts of the books they read as children, the songs they listened to as teenagers. The beautiful thing about selling culture is that it can be transported almost for free—just add it to the radio transmissions you were already sending. Mars will also produce its own culture, of course, but the much smaller population and constant struggle for survival will mean that most of the cultural flow will be outward from Earth to the colonies rather than the reverse. The Internet won’t work normally between Earth and Mars due to the time delay, but there will be something like it, a local MarsNet that caches material from the Internet on a delay of a few hours and then shares it with the colony. You won’t download webpages in real time, you’ll request them a day in advance. You won’t send instant messages, but sending email will be hardly any different. (Instead of Nigerian princes we’ll start getting scam spam about Martian mining entrepreneurs.) Whoever owns this communication monopoly will become fantastically rich, perhaps even more so than the mining companies themselves—because the mining companies have overhead.

Overall, the increased availability of previously-scarce metals like gold, lithium, and neodymium will make new technologies possible and also widely available, including battery technologies that might finally allow Earth to wean itself off of carbon emissions. (Unfortunately, our current means of spacecraft launch are all very carbon-intensive. We will need to invent nuclear engines that don’t leave fallout so that we can launch with them from the ground.) Like all trade, the mutual imports and exports between Earth and Mars will benefit both societies.

But unless we change course dramatically as a society, interplanetary trade will make one problem even worse, and that is inequality. I am having trouble foreseeing an interplanetary trade system that doesn’t involve making the middlemen who own the shipping and networking companies rich even beyond the wildest dreams of today’s plutocrats. We will witness the birth of humanity’s first trillionaires, individual men (and let’s face it, probably men, unless we figure out gender equality too) who own as much as not just entire countries, but as entire large First World countries. The GDP of France today is $2.8 trillion per year; the CEO of Aresoy or MarsNet could well make more than that on dividends. Of course, that provides him a great incentive to start the project now—but what will it mean for our societies when one person can buy a spaceship as casually as we would buy a cup of coffee?

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