Mars and the Meaning of Money


Space exploration has an unusual side effect: giving us a sense of the value of money on earth.

1/ The Perseverance rover, shown touching down on Mars in the photo below, cost about $2.2 billion to design and build, and about $243 million to launch on an Atlas rocket.

2/ Now that it is on the ground, if all goes well, and it is able to operate, it will cost another $300 million to operate for two years. So that’s at least $2.7 billion overall, or about 54,000 bitcoins. Hopefully more, if the mission gets extended.

3/ For those who don’t track this stuff, it is the fifth Mars rover, not counting the early Viking missions in the 70s which were not rovers. The previous ones were Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity.

4/ Perseverance is very much like Curiosity — about the size of an SUV, and powered by an MMRTG — Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. By contrast, Sojourner in 1997 was about the size of a lawnmower, and the MERS were about the size of golfcarts.

5/ Probably the most charismatically interesting thing about Perseverance is that it is carrying a drone helicopter called the Ingenuity, which will be a genuinely fascinating thing if it works. An aircraft on another planet — one with 1/6 the gravity, and about 0.6% the atmospheric density.

6/ So how should you think about the value of the Perseverance mission? Some people who are space-exploration positive are still kinda defensive about such things and try to make up rationalizations like R&D benefits for problems here on earth.

7/ I think this is not even wrong. When someone asks why we spend money on Mars missions when there are starving children on earth, the answer is neither to make up specious theories of how space science can lead to life-saving medicines on earth, nor to walk away saying values are different, but to talk about how money works.

8/ Money is the largest-scale coordination mechanism we have for negotiating differences in values of things, and is what allows us to define what the word “we” means. Its design has to accommodate everything humans might disagree about. Money that cannot value space exploration or art cannot value medicines or food very well either.

9/ So I think the simplest mental model is as a civilizational art project. 2.7 billion is about 0.013% of the GDP of the United States. This is actually pretty cheap by civilizational artwork standards.

10/ For comparison, at the height of the Mughal empire, the Taj Mahal cost about a billion of today’s dollars, and a double digit percentage of the empire’s GDP at the time. Possibly as high as 20-25%. According to some historians, it contributed to the bankruptcy and decline of the empire.

11/ A good question about civilizational art projects is — who is the art project for. Whether you’re talking medieval monuments or Mars rovers, it is easy to figure out who the artwork is by, but it’s not always easy to figure out who it is for.

12/ Pre-modern civilizational art projects were generally monuments to the narcissism of emperors and religious leaders. To get people to accept the fiscal burden to undertake them, you had to make up myths and religions.

13/ There is some of that in modern space programs. We still quote Kennedy’s speech about getting to the moon. But even the most powerful modern cults of personality, whether you’re talking Kennedy or Trump or Xi Jinpeng, pale in comparison to the cults of old monarchies and religions.

14/ Presidents get to bask in the reflected glory of space programs a little bit, but ultimately, they ultimately get only a small slice of the attention. If you add up all the attention we give to astronauts and Nasa, and the people who work on missions, you still get a big deficit. You’re left asking, who exactly asked for this?

15/ It’s not even national pride really. Space programs in the 1950s were strongly linked to national industrial bases, but today, a modern space program, even the US space program, sources talent, materials and technologies from all over the world.

16/ For example, NASA has been promoting a PR video around the rover showing immigrants from all over the world who have worked on it. And on a material level, the rover uses many components from outside the US. For example, the motors used on the rover are made by a Swiss company called Maxon.

17/ So as an art project, I think it makes most sense to think of space programs as art projects by and for global economic systems. They represent an economic system as an emergent entity admiring itself in the mirror. In the case of NASA missions, it is the Western economy. In the case of China, it is the Chinese economy.

18/ What they do is help calibrate what an economic system is capable of, when stretched to its limits, and how it compares to competing systems. And this, I think, is not just valuable, it is functionally necessary. Any kind of economic system can only work if it constantly tests the limits of its ability to price things against competing systems.

19/ A functional economic system isn’t about judging human choices and preferences, but to price them. Everything from cancer drugs and aid to disaster zones to climate change and space programs to luxury yachts and obscene extravagances by rich celebrities. If humans are capable of it, a real economic system should be able to put a price on it.

20/ One of the reasons cryptocurrencies aren’t taken seriously yet is that the economic system they represent is restricted to a very small set of activities. It hasn’t been calibrated against a large enough scope of activities. The equivalent of space programs for the cryptoeconomy is games on the Ethereum blockchain like CryptoKitties or the recent innovations in NFTs (non-fungible tokens). It has a long way to go.

21/ Many people want to translate their political and ideological interests into economic terms. They want to somehow design an economic system that makes, for example, Mars missions so expensive we don’t do them, and saving lives so cheap, we never fail save them. But this is fundamentally wrong-headed.

22/ If you can’t come to terms with the diversity and variety of things humans want and value, and are willing to work for, you will want to design economic models to coerce them to act differently. This is a version of what statisticians call the bias-variance tradeoff, which I’m using as a metaphor here. The more you try to bias an economic system to do certain things, the more you’ll narrow the overall range of things it can do.

23/ If you think people suck, and try to make an economy that prevents them from sucking, you’ll either oppress people, or create an economy that sucks, or most likely, both. The only way we know to avoid that is to keep recalibrating the scope of the economy — the things it is capable of pricing, at the weirdest extremes, without unraveling entirely.

24/ In other words, if the economy does things you think are horrible, and refuses to do things you think are necessary, you don’t have a problem with the economy. You have a problem with people, and you’re not willing to cop to the desire for coercive control.

25/ Yes the economy has lots of distortions, but it had even worse distortions in the past when it was the plaything of emperors building monuments to their own grief. To make the economy better you have to remove distortions, not add them. And the only way we know to do that is to constantly calibrate by letting it do weird things so it can look at itself in the mirror.

So that’s it for this free podcast edition. I’ll see you next week with another subscriber post.