2014 was not characterized so much by my relocation to New York City or the meeting of my current romantic and business partner as it was by my ongoing battle with strep throat. Maybe it was my body’s way of manifesting the difficulty it felt adjusting to my new life, but within ten months of living in the city, I had been diagnosed with streptococcal pharyngitis three times. In addition to the standard complications, each case was accompanied by a strange and almost cosmic creative output. As I writhed on my couch with swollen lymph nodes during the second infection, I was overcome by a manic writing episode, the product of which I unceremoniously sent to a friend to whom I hadn’t spoken in five years. In the first 48 hours of the third infection, a string of vivid yet inexplicable fever dreams besieged me. In one of the more bizarre vignettes, my body ascended on a cloud up to the heavens. As I drifted towards space, a swath of unfamiliar faces travelled alongside me. My cloud abruptly stopped as a shimmering, robed figure floated down toward my vessel. The person moved through the sky with strange finesse, as if they were being jauntily lowered by strings from an unseen higher power.
As they approached, it became clear that the angelic being was actually America’s 42nd President, George W. Bush. I immediately became flushed.
"I have to ask, George. Is it really you?"
He responded with a few mumbles.
"Did my family send you?"
"What have you been painting lately?"
More indecipherable mumbles.
"Do you have any advice for me as I move forward?"
He paused and then held tightly onto my gaze. "If you read the biography of William McKinley," he said, "you will have all the answers."
The next day I went to The Strand and scanned the biography section. The only McKinley biography on the shelf was Scott Miller’s The President and the Assassin. The title offered a twist that took me by surprise. When reading Miller’s biography in 2014, the events of McKinley’s life did not seem circumstantial. Only now are the parallels becoming clear.
Between 1852 and 1890, the German astronomer Robert Luther discovered twenty-four asteroids located in the Main Belt, an area between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. In 1884, he came across an impressively large satellite that measured over 100 miles wide. He named the asteroid after his home country: 241 Germania.
Information on the internet about 241 Germania is scarce. The most unique result comes from an article published in 2012 by the Daily Mail. Its introductory paragraph states that "one single asteroid in the solar system—241 Germania— has $95.8 (£60) trillion of mineral wealth inside it - nearly the same as the annual GDP of the entire WORLD."1
In 1989, real estate developer Seymour Durst sponsored the construction of a National Debt Clock, a billboard-sized meter that displays the debt in real time. The clock now resides near the corner of 44th Street and Sixth Avenue, relocated after the original building that housed it was demolished. The white text, printed on top of a collage of desaturated one-dollar bills, reads, "OUR NATIONAL DEBT," followed by the computerized numbers you’d see on an old-fashioned scoreboard or analog alarm clock. A second set of digits offers an unsettling estimate of "YOUR Family share."
At the time of this writing, the clock estimates the United States’ collective debt is over 19 trillion dollars.
The election of 1896 hinged on the single issue of currency stabilization due to a series of economic panics and depressions in the 1880s and 1890s. William McKinley and his Republican party wanted to link the value of the U.S. dollar to a specific weight of gold from the U.S. Treasury’s reserves. The Gold Standard, as it was called, was viewed as a policy that overwhelmingly benefitted the rich, as gold’s scarcity led to globally high interest rates and an inflexible dollar. William Jennings Bryan, McKinley’s opponent, called for U.S. currency to be placed on a bimetallic standard, instead tying the dollar to a specific weight of gold and silver congruently. Bimetallism allowed currency to be more elastic, permitting the government to lower interest rates and provide more capital for banks to loan to consumers. These tactics were often employed in a sluggish economic period in order to promote spending and growth. Currency flexibility was therefore understood as a benefit to farmers and those in the middle and lower working class, and these groups rallied around Bryan’s silverite cause.
The gap between the wealthy and the working class was steadily widening around the turn of the 19th century, bringing a new fervor and height of dissonance to the debate surrounding economic policies. The industrial revolution was in full swing, establishing a coterie of tycoons who held more wealth and corporate power than any entrepreneur in recent history. Men like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J. Pierpont Morgan were the leaders of a new American aristocracy, empowered by capitalist success rather than an established royal lineage. Although those at the top profited from technological advances, the average worker saw their employment opportunities shifting and becoming increasingly unfavorable. Conglomerate factories with aloof owners replaced small, family-run mills. Managers were responsible for thousands of workers and could hardly remember their names or value their individual labor. Wages fell significantly and working conditions deteriorated, which contributed to the bubbling resentment. As Stanford professor Richard White explains, there "was a sense that the political system had spun out of control, and was no longer able to deal with society... There was a feeling that America’s advance had stopped, and the whole thing was going to break."2
Bryan capitalized on the dissatisfaction of the working class, and his speeches often condemned the selfishness of the upper class and the moral pollution that could emanate from unbridled power. Seeing the fight against McKinley (and the wealthy establishment backing him) as more than day-to-day politics, he passionately provoked his audience to action. For instance, when addressing a crowd at a Dayton, Ohio campaign stop, Bryan encouraged his constituents to "read the pages of all history and find a single instance where the money changers have ever had any use for [soldiers] except to stand them up to be shot at while they were making money."3 At the Democratic National Convention, he asserted that "we are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity… We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!"4
McKinley knew he was no match for Bryan when it came to public speaking and therefore refused to travel from town to town and create a garish "catchpenny scheme for the sake of... making himself talked about."5 No one seemed to mind McKinley’s wishes. People travelled in droves to Canton, Ohio to congregate on his front lawn and spend a few moments with their candidate of choice. McKinley’s mother and wife would serve lemonade to the surprising crowd of guests while McKinley attempted to address them from the makeshift stage of his front porch. Constituents would bring gifts, from cakes and fruits to "the largest plate of galvanized iron ever rolled in the United States."6 From early summer until Election Day in November, nearly 750,000 people from thirty different states came to show their support for the "Idol of Ohio."
McKinley’s front porch campaign was charming at first, but Bryan’s oratorical artistry and capacity to relate to the common man converted constituents at a staggering rate. Initial polling put Bryan ahead of McKinley and predicted he would hang on to his margin for quite some time. McKinley’s campaign tried to switch gears, reaching out to midwestern farmers and east coast factory workers to little avail. McKinley’s speeches were not as rousing to them; they didn’t capture the audience’s temperature quite like Bryan’s did. Republican Senator Eugene Hall perfectly articulated the consensus among many establishment Republicans, writing, "we could have beaten an old-fashioned Democratic nomination and ticket without half trying, but [Bryan’s] new movement has stolen our thunder."7 Bryan’s left-leaning economic platform started off as a nuisance but could no longer be overlooked. Republicans had to respond. They had to convince middle-class workers that McKinley’s proposal for a gold standard would help them more than Bryan’s bimetallism would.
McKinley’s staffers, advisors, and Republican allies shifted into panic mode as they tried to drum up solutions. Their biggest help came from an unlikely source: a Democratic railroad tycoon named James J. Hill.
"Space is not empty," Ian Webster told the crowd at 2015’s OpenVis conference. "Space is full of opportunity, full of interesting science and [Asterank]… is allowing people to communicate research and
data they’ve collected and give it to the world."8
Asterank is an open-source database that catalogs scientific data alongside economic speculations for over 600,000 asteroids in the solar system.9 The top half of the homepage houses an extensive chart with information about every known asteroid in our solar system—name, spectral class, eccentricity, value in U.S. dollars, and each satellite's "estimated profit." Underneath the chart is a hypnotic animation, a three-dimensional depiction of each asteroid and its orbital path around the sun and the earth.
Webster, a software engineer and computer scientist, developed the directory in 2012, soon after he graduated from Dartmouth. He initially compiled data from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, the International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center, and a plethora of other scientific websites and publications in order to create an easily digestible infographic for the public. "At the time," he told me, "I noticed that most news articles on asteroid mining made a number of wild claims about what an asteroid could be worth… My goal with Asterank was simply to establish a baseline for discussion and have the math to back it up."10
The discussion Webster refers to involves the website’s "estimated profit" category. The profit does not refer to the outcome of a freak accident wherein the heavy rock crashes into Earth, nor does it simply measure what would happen if the asteroid’s material resources went on the market today. Instead, this figure takes the economic value of the resources inside the asteroid and subtracts the costs incurred after workers (or robots) travel to space and physically mine them, directly from the body’s core.
The website currently lists 241 Germania’s estimated profit as ">100 trillion," the maximum figure the chart reports. The arbitrary cutoff, Webster explained to me, was to keep profit speculation in a relatively realistic range while avoiding extraneous data categories—a number of asteroids worth over $100 trillion could be considered dwarf planets. Planetary Resources, Inc. acquired Asterank in May 2013. Before the acquisition, Webster remarked that, "Scientists know shockingly little about the composition of asteroids...this information scarcity is exactly why Planetary Resources is going to spend years or even decades investing in LEO-telescopes and data-gathering flybys before they ever touch an asteroid."11
McKinley and Bryan’s proposed economic policies sharply divided constituents into two camps—those with wealth and those without. James J. Hill was in the wealthy camp, having made his fortune as the main developer of the Great Northern Railroad. By 1891, he had amassed enough money to build what was, at the time, the largest private residence in Minnesota. Sprawling over 36,000 square feet and five stories high, his mansion looked more like a hotel or mid-size boarding school from the outside. And with thirteen bathrooms, twenty-two fireplaces, and a two-story art gallery illuminated entirely by skylight windows, it could have easily operated as one.
Hill was a registered Democrat, but he took umbrage at Bryan’s tirades against the rich and his calls for a silver-backed economy. He felt that the Democratic Party was caving to the pressure of a few fringe agrarian radicals, and in an act of revenge, he invested a staggering amount of money into McKinley’s campaign. Hill came out strong for McKinley and was determined to bring other wealthy elites into the fold. Hill’s closed-door conversations led to astronomical private donations, but that wasn’t enough. Business owners also sought to convert their employees and, after a few failures, ultimately resorted to strong-arming. Miller elaborates,
…The McCormick Machine companies notified employees that they would shut down if Bryan won. Big insurance companies in New York and Connecticut dispatched local agents to individual farmers in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois to tantalize them with five-year low-interest loan extensions if McKinley prevailed. Other large companies employed ‘contingent deals’ to aid their candidate, placing orders with manufacturers under the proviso that they would be cancelled if McKinley lost…It marked a historic shift in the role of business in American politics.12 After the polls closed on November 3rd, crowds frantically congregated in front of newspaper offices, onto main avenues, and into large sports arenas to hear the results come in live. Republican voters hollered as the southern states’ electoral delegates—ones Bryan assumed he would win—went to McKinley. Even though McKinley won only 51% of the popular vote, the Electoral College settled the election by a wider margin. McKinley gained 271 delegates versus Bryan’s 176.
In his inauguration speech, McKinley declared that "the credit of the Government, the integrity of its currency, and the inviolability of its obligations must be preserved. This was the commanding verdict of the people, and it will not be unheeded."13 On March 14, 1900, he signed the Gold Standard Act, fixing U.S. currency to the precious metal at $20.67 per ounce of gold.
Arkyd Astronautics was founded in 2008 and spent their first few years shrouded in a cloud of secrecy. Vague job postings accompanied by a scant website kept Arkyd’s daily operations and larger mission concealed from industry veterans and members of the press. Cyber-sleuthing by GeekWire traced the company’s management to Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, two men known for heading outrageous and attention-grabbing space-related ventures. Diamandis co-founded Zero Gravity Corporation in 1994, which offers gravity-free domestic flights to the privileged public. These flights, which cost almost $5,000 and last a couple of hours, allow their passengers to experience the thrill of space travel while remaining in the comfort of Earth’s atmosphere. In 1998, the pair founded Space Adventures, a self-described "space tourism" company that hopes to someday provide commercial flights to the Moon. Anderson and Diamandis’ fantastical careers drove wild speculation about the mission of Arkyd Astronautics, but one thing was certain: whatever the project entailed, it would be flashy, gimmicky and could also have wide ramifications for the future of interstellar travel.
The decision to operate in relative secret proved beneficial for Arkyd. In 2011, the company received a $125,000 Small Business Technology Transfer award from NASA, an institution the company would later seek to outpace. In early 2012, Chris Lewicki, Arkyd’s president and chief engineer, participated in the Keck Institute’s Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study, which sought to determine the near-term plausibility of capturing asteroids and transporting them back to Earth. The study concluded that Asteroid Capture and Return missions have "the potential to jump-start an entire industry…it would endow NASA and its partners with a new capability in deep space that hasn’t been seen since [the] Apollo [program]."14 This information seemed to confirm long-held suspicions by Arkyd’s co-founders. Diamandis and Anderson were ready to step out from behind the curtain.
Two weeks after the study was published, Arkyd Astronautics held a press conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. A packed house awaited them, drawn by a press release that outlined Arkyd’s plans to "revolutionize space exploration activities [and] add trillions of dollars to the global GDP."15 The company unveiled their new name—Planetary Resources Incorporated—and described in detail their plan to mine near-Earth asteroids, which they assert are the key to the solar system’s blossoming economy. In addition to the staggering wealth of platinum buried in these asteroids, the space rocks also contain an even more critical resource—water.
In order to enable a mass exodus to Mars or the Moon, the company contends that rockets would need to make pit stops to refuel. By extracting water from asteroids and separating the molecules, Planetary Resources would provide these shuttles with high-energy liquid-oxygen and liquid-hydrogen fuel. Building these fuel stations throughout space would drive down travel costs, making trips more accessible for Earth’s most curious and courageous citizens. Planetary Resources envisions itself as an ally in cosmic travel, working with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and others to help these projects reach their full potential. "The migration of humans leaving the Earth is happening this century," Anderson stated with intense conviction, adding, "if we do our job right…and Elon does his job right…we’re going to be doing this in the next 30 years."16
During the press conference, the company also disclosed their roster of initial investors, which include Google founder Larry Page, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, and real estate developer (and son of former presidential candidate) Ross Perot, Jr. Director James Cameron was named one of the company’s main advisors.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression threw gold’s flaws into sharp relief. The Federal Reserve was established in 1913 as America’s central bank, challenged with curbing inflation, controlling interest rates, and regulating the country’s money supply. During this time, the Federal Reserve was unable to do much under McKinley’s Gold Standard. To make sure a substantial quantity of gold remained in the government’s possession, the Federal Reserve had to counterintuitively raise interest rates well above their pre-Depression levels. As economic analyst Liaquat Ahamed explained, this raising of interest rates "is essentially what converted what was a terrible depression into the Great Depression."17 Most of the developed world was tied together by their reliance on gold. Economic troubles rippled globally, creating a crisis on a massive scale.
Within days of his inauguration in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Emergency Banking Act. The act forced banks to close for an entire week, and once they reopened, they no longer permitted citizens to exchange their dollars for gold. A few more proclamations and congressional acts enacted throughout the year further weakened the link between gold and the dollar in an effort to ease the transition for the United States and for countries worldwide. Finally, in January 1934, Roosevelt signed the Gold Reserve Act to transfer all of America’s gold reserves away from Federal Reserve and into the hands of the U.S. Treasury. Economic recovery slowly followed as the United States transitioned to a fiat economy, in which the value of the dollar is set by government entities and not by its relation to a physical commodity.
Foreign governments, however, could still trade their U.S. dollars for gold, which led to more economic scares including a perilous depletion of the United States’ gold reserves in the late 1960s. During this period, known as the Great Inflation, the Federal Reserve printed an abundance of money in order to offset value surges and a sudden increase in unemployment rates. The weakening dollar, combined with a fall in American exports, led European countries to redeem their dollars for gold at a stunning pace. At first, the government established "currency swaps," wherein they loaned out foreign currencies, with interest, to persuade others to hold on to their unwanted dollar reserves. As the value of the dollar fell and the American economy struggled to recover, the Federal Reserve’s temporary fix transformed into an intractable problem. In 1971, President Nixon ended the possibility for conversion by taking America off the gold standard, effectively transforming international markets into a fiat economy as well.
Capitalizing on the excitement following their initial press conference, Planetary Resources swiftly began to solidify its research and development arm while courting institutional collaborators. In April 2013, a year after going public, they announced a partnership with Bechtel Corporation, a construction and civil engineering company with extensive experience in the composition and construction of "precious-metals-recovery plants,"18 or, more simply put, mines. The company relocated to Redmond, Washington and built a 21,000 square foot facility equipped with a research laboratory and fabrication studio. Right before the relocation, Planetary Resources turned to Kickstarter to help fund the Arkyd 100, a special space telescope with an LCD screen and digital camera attached to its body. By contributing $25 or more to the campaign, you would receive a photograph of your submitted selfie displayed on the telescope’s external screen with the distant Planet Earth in the background. The campaign raised over $1.5 million, but it was not nearly enough to actually build the telescope. The Kickstarter campaign, Arkyd later explained, was meant as a gambit to attract a deep-pocketed institutional partner from the business or education sector, a foundation or institute captivated by Planetary Resource’s larger mission, determination, and widespread popularity. This partner would, presumably, match the sum donated by the initial contributors to make the construction and deployment of the satellite possible. This institutional partner did not step forward and Planetary Resources temporarily conceded the search, offering full refunds to its contributors three years after the crowd-funding campaign ended.
All hope for a significant partnership, however, was not lost. In June 2016, the government of Luxembourg announced that they would offer a direct capital investment to Planetary Resources and become minority shareholders in the company. Despite its small population, Luxembourg boasts the world’s second highest GDP per capita. At the same time, Luxembourg announced their determination to become the first European country to "set out a formal and legal framework which ensures that private operators working in space can be confident about their rights to the resources they extract."19
Luxembourg would become the first European country to enact such laws—the United States had already ensured the property rights of space miners. In November 2015, President Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law, allowing private and commercial companies the freedom to explore outer space. In one alarming passage, the law states that any "United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource…shall be entitled to any…resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource."20 In simplistic terms, intergalactic finders are intergalactic keepers. The United Nation’s Outer Space Treaty of 1967 protects against the wholesale exploitation of space, but those hoping to profit from asteroid mining can reinterpret its muddier clauses. Sagi Kfir, a "space attorney" working for one of Planetary Resources’ competitors,21 argues that the UN treaty’s declaration of space as "free for exploration and use by all states" merits a wider discussion. Private companies like Planetary Resources, he argues, are merely hoping to use the resources of outer space in order to assist in space exploration. They are not seeking to colonize or create sovereign states on the asteroids themselves. "Much like fishing trawlers going to sea," he suggests, "the fishermen have the right to keep the fish that they catch, but have no ownership rights to the sea itself."22 By this logic, Planetary Resources could legally possess the $100 trillion worth of materials in 241 Germania—as long as they are able to harvest it first.
Reflecting on the election of 1896, it’s striking how the conditions and characters mirror the 2016 presidential contest. A disruptive shift in labor practices, coupled with an economic crisis and sustained recession, resulted in the meteoric rise of a far-left candidate whose platform focused on the interests of the working class—William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and Bernie Sanders in 2016. These economic populists were ultimately defeated by candidates aligned with corporate interests.
Libertarians and extreme-right Republicans are already arguing for a return to the Gold Standard. What had been a fringe belief has now become a serious part of mainstream conversation. Ron Paul, with equal parts sincerity and absurdity, refers to the Federal Reserve as "money elves...who feel like playing God with the economy."23 Robert Mercer, a hedge-fund tycoon and financial backer of the alt-right—he funded Breitbart News in its early days and later contributed millions to Trump’s campaign—also supports a commodity-based economic system. His daughter Rebekah was granted a seat on Trump’s transition team, and she has brazenly promoted a return to the gold standard during his tenure thus far.24
Those who advocate for gold’s return follow a perfect-on-paper platform that eschews logic. The Gold Standard takes something as incredibly abstract and attempts to render it concrete, in order to help demystify what is a necessarily nebulous arrangement. As American capitalism reaches further into outer space, will those in power learn from these past economic mistakes? Or will the desire to reduce complex relations into simple material analogies replicate, again and again, across the cosmos—is impetus to do so a facet of human nature?
Dig and I dig and dig and dig
Dig diggy dig dig dig a dig
Dig diggy diggy dig dig
And I dig my life away-o
And I dig my life away
Precious metal is hard to find
Precious metal is hard to find
Down in the hole and down in the mine
And I dig my life away-o
And I dig my life away 25