Ways to Spend Seven Hundred Billion Dollars

Seventy Space Elevators and Other Ways to Spend $700 Billion


No one would argue that the money being pledged to save our financial institutions is a waste, but is it really the best way to spend $700 billion? (Craig Calefate Photo Illustration/ The Observer)

Published: October 16, 2008

Seven hundred billion dollars is a helluva lot of money. Even in this age of “a trillion here, a trillion there, pretty soon we are talking real money,” numbers like that strain the imagination. When money limits nearly every aspect of our lives, we have trouble comprehending just what we could do with such a sum. So they come up with absurd equivalencies that they think will make the number manageable: 2,000 hot apple pies for every American. In that light, $700 billion seems pretty useless.

Here’s one I like better. In the long days before the bailout passed, as they debated and compromised and filled the bill with pork, news made the rounds that the Japanese space agency was interested in building a space elevator—a thin but impossibly strong cable stretching from the Earth’s surface high out into orbit, a way to move materials out of our planet’s atmosphere and gravity well at a fraction of current costs. The Japanese figured they could build one for one trillion yen—about $10 billion. So, for the cost of the bailout, we could build 70 space elevators.

When the first bill failed in the House, I felt glad, giddy, almost eager. This is not to say that I thought the present crisis should not somehow be dealt with. I, like most of us, sensed the peril we were in, the threat not to our lives but to our livelihoods. I did not want to see another Great Depression or any of the other economic crises the current situation has been compared to. Still, there was something alluring about the thought of seeing the crisis through, all the way to the end. We could just let it all fall apart, I thought, let the whole financial edifice crumble and see what strange new creatures lumbered out of the rubble. It was a daring possibility, like driving cross-country on nothing but espresso and ambition. We have lived and labored under the current financial system for so long with ever more mediocre results. We suspect, rightly, that the financial system given to us is built out of fictions, though we cannot tell exactly what those fictions are. If there really were a total collapse, perhaps we would discover that we do not need them, and the whole of the system, as much as they say we do.

More than any of that, though, the proposed rescue plan seemed lacking in imagination: throw money at the problem and hope it is enough to buy back our status quo. Lay out everything else that could be done with $700 billion—or even $10 billion—what we could have done all along, in fact, if we’d had the inclination: clean drinking water for all the world, a solution to the global food crisis, hospitals and medicine to rid the developing world of curable diseases, new energy infrastructure to wrest our lifestyle from the grip of oil and coal, 70 space elevators. Are these not worthy causes? We are told that without this bailout we risk people losing their homes and jobs and spiraling into poverty. But there are already people in America and elsewhere without homes, without jobs; there are already many people in poverty. Is their suffering somehow less real, less pitiable than the hypothetical woes that the bailout is meant to prevent? Inevitably the question rises to mind: if we are willing to spend $700 billion on something, why on earth are we choosing to spend it on this?

Anyone who has been around me long enough knows that space elevators occupy a special, revered place in my heart and my hopes for the future. A space elevator would be our first real toehold onto the vast canvas of possibilities that lies outside our planet, and building one seems like a rite of passage that would prove our mettle as a spacefaring civilization. Most of all, though, the scale of the thing, the novelty of the proposed design—all of it boils over with imagination and suggests the very best of what humans can accomplish. The bailout has no such grandeur to it; next to 70 space elevators, or one space elevator, this charity to rich banks and lenders seems small, petty. Instead, it stinks of shame and conspiracy, as if the bailout were hush money paid to a capitalism threatening to call out our government and its patrons in the investor class on their malfeasance.

None of this really matters, of course. The bill eventually passed, and capitalism will slink on. The bailout will cost us dearly, but perhaps we will be better off with it than without it. But let us not allow them to stuff this genie away. If the rich and powerful want a helluva lot of money to save their edifices, the rest of us should demand equal treatment. What would we actually do with such a sum? I’m starting to think of a few things. The world is a big place with big problems. So let’s make our solutions big. Bailout big. Seven hundred billion dollars big. Seventy space elevators big.