Offworld 'company towns' are the wrong way to settle the solar system

[Turns chair around backwards and sits down] "So, you want to live on Mars at Elon Musk's pleasure."

Maciej Frolow via Getty Images

Company Towns — wherein a single firm provides most or all necessary services, from housing and employment to commerce and amenities to a given community — have dotted America since before the Civil War. As we near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, they're making a comeback with a new generation of ultra-wealthy elites gobbling up land and looking to build towns in their own image.

And why should only terrestrial workers be exploited? Elon Musk has long talked of his plans to colonize Mars through his company SpaceX and those plans don't happen without a sizeable — and in this case, notably captive — workforce on hand. The same Elon Musk who spent $44 billion to run a ubiquitous social media site into the ground, whose brain computer interface company can't stop killing monkeys and whose automotive company can't stop killing pedestrians, wants to construct entire settlements wholly reliant on his company's largesse and logistics train. Are we really going to trust the mercurial CEO with people's literal air supplies?

In this week's Hitting the Books, Rice University biologist and podcaster Kelly Weinersmith and her husband Zach (of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal fame) examine what it will actually take to put people on the red planet and what unforeseen costs we might have to pay to accomplish such a goal in their new book A City on Mars: Can we settle space, should we settle space, and have we really thought this through?

An illustration of a subterranean settlement village on Mars
Penguin Random House

Excerpted from A City on Mars: Can we settle space, should we settle space, and have we really thought this through? by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. Published by Penguin. Copyright © 2023 by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. All rights reserved.

On the Care and Feeding of Space Employees

One of the first things to know about company towns is that companies don’t appear to want to be in charge of housing. In our experience, people often think housing was an actively pursued control tactic, but if you look at the available data and the oral histories, companies often seem downright reluctant to supply housing at all. In Dr. Price Fishback’s economic analysis of coal towns in early-twentieth-century Appalachia, Soft Coal, Hard Choices, he found that companies able to have a third party supply housing typically did. This is hard to square with the idea that housing was built specifically with sinister intentions.

There are also good theoretical reasons to explain why companies build housing and rent it out to workers. Suppose Elon Musk is building the space city Muskow. Having wisely consulted the nearest available Weinersmith, he decides he shouldn’t own employee housing due to something or other about the risks of power imbalance. He looks to hire builders, but immediately runs into a problem: very few companies are available for construction on Mars. Let’s consider the simple case where only one company is willing to do it.

Well, guess what. That company now has monopoly power. They can raise home prices or lower home quality, making Muskow less attractive to potential workers. Musk can now only improve the situation by paying workers more, costing him money while lining the pockets of the housing provider.

If he wants to avoid this, Musk’s ideal option is to attract more building companies, so they can compete with each other. If that’s not possible, as was often the case in remote company towns, then the only alternative is to build the housing himself. This works, but the tradeoff is that he’s now managing housing in addition to focusing on his core business. He’s also acquired a lot of control over his employees. None of this setup requires Musk to be a power-hungry bastard — all it requires is that he needs to attract workers to a place where there’s zero competition for housing construction.

Historically, where things get more worrisome is in rental agreements, which often tied housing to employment. Even these can partially be explained as rational choices a non- evil bastard might non- evilly make. Workers in mines were often temporary. Mines were temporary, too, existing only until the resources were no longer profitable. This made homeownership a less compelling prospect for a worker. Why? Two reasons. First, if a town may suddenly fold in fifteen years because a copper mine stops being profitable, buying a house is a bad investment. Second, if you own a home, it’s hard for you to leave. This is a problem because threatening to leave is a classic way to enhance your bargaining position as a worker.

Once you have people whose housing is tied to their job, the potential for abuse is enormous — especially during strikes. Rental agreements were often tied to employment, and so striking or even having an injury could mean the loss of your home. When your boss is also your landlord, their ability to threaten you and your family is tremendous, and indeed narrative accounts refer to eviction of families with children by force. If employees either owned their homes or had more secure rental agreements, power would have run the other way. They could have struck for better wages or conditions and occupied those homes to make it harder for their employer to bring in replacements.

It may be tempting to see this as a purely capitalist problem, but very similar results occurred in Soviet monotown housing. Employees tended to get reasonably nice company-town housing; if they lost their jobs, they had to go to the local Soviet, which provided far worse accommodations. As one author put it, “Thus, housing became the method of controlling workers par excellence.” This suggests that there’s a deep structural dynamic here — when your employer owns your housing, they’re apt to use it against you at some point.

In space, you can’t kick people out of their houses unless you’re prepared to kill them or pay for a pricey trip home. On Mars, orbital mechanics may preclude the trip even if you’re able to afford it. In arguing with space-settlement geeks, housing concerns are often set up as binaries — “Look, they’re not going to kill the employees, so they’ll have to treat them well.” In fact, there’s a spectrum of bastardry available. A company-town boss on Mars could provide lower-quality food, reduce floor space, restrict the flow of beet wine, deny you access to the pregnodrome. They could also tune your atmosphere. We found one account by a British submariner, in which he claimed to adjust the balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide depending on whether he wanted people more lethargic or more active. Whether it’ll be worth the risk of pissing off employees who cost, at least, millions to deliver to the settlement is harder to say.

This overall logic — companies must supply amenities, therefore companies acquire power — repeats across contexts in company towns. To attract skilled employees who may have families, the company must supply housing, yes, but they also must supply other regular town stuff — shopping, entertainment, festivals, sanitation, roads, bridges, municipal planning, schools, temples, churches. When one company controls shopping, they set the prices and they know what you buy. When they control entertainment and worship, they have power over employee speech and behavior. When they control schools, they have power over what is taught. When they control the hospitals, they control who gets health care, and how much.

Even if the company does a decent job on all these fronts, there may still be resistance, basically because people don’t love having so much of their lives controlled by one entity. Fishback argued that company towns, for all their issues, were not as bad as their reputation. In theorizing why, he suggested one problem you might call the omni-antagonist effect. Think about what groups you’re most likely to be angry at during any given moment of adult life. Landlord? Home-repair company? Local stores? Utility companies? Your homeowners association? Local governance? Health-care service? Chances are you’re mad at someone on this list even as you read this book. Now, imagine all are merged into a single entity that is also your boss.

In space, as usual, things are worse: the infrastructure and utility people aren’t just keeping the toilet and electricity running; they’re deciding how much CO2 is in your air and controlling transportation in and out of town. Even if the company is not evil, it’s going to be hard to keep good relations, even at the best of times.

And it will not always be the best of times.

When Company Towns Go Bad

Unionization attempts on September 3, 1921, reporting on the then ongoing miners strike in West Virginia, the Associated Press released the following bulletin:

Sub district President Blizzard of the United Mine Workers . . . says five airplanes sent up from Logan county dropped bombs manufactured of gaspipe and high explosives over the miners’ land, but that no one was injured. One of the bombs, he reports, fell between two women who were standing in a yard, but it failed to explode.

“Failed to explode” is better than the alternative, but well, it’s the thought that counts.

Most strikes were not accompanied by attempted war crimes, but that particular strike, which was part of early-twentieth-century America’s aptly named Coal Wars, happened during a situation associated with increased danger — unionization attempts.

Looked at in strictly economic terms, this isn’t so surprising. From the company’s perspective, beyond unionization lies a huge unknown. Formerly direct decisions will have to run through a new and potentially antagonistic committee. The company will have less flexibility about wages and layoffs in case of an economic downturn. They may become less competitive with a nonunion entity. They may have to renegotiate every single employee contract.

Whether or not a union would be good per se in a space settlement, given how costly and hazardous any kind of strife would be, you may want to begin your space settlement with some sort of collective bargaining entity purely to avoid a dangerous transition. A union would also reduce some of the power imbalance by giving workers the ability to act collectively in their own interest. However, this may not happen in reality if the major space capitalists of today are the space company-town bosses of the future—both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos kept their companies ununionized while CEOs.

Economic Chaos

Another basic problem here is that company towns, being generally oriented around a single good, are extremely vulnerable to economic randomness. Several scholars have noted that company towns tend to be less prone to strife when they have fatter margins. It’s no coincidence that the pipe-bomb incident above came about during a serious drop in the price of coal early in the twentieth century. Price drops and general bad economic conditions can mean renegotiations of contracts in an environment where the company fears for its survival. Things can get nasty.

If Muskow makes its money on tourism, it might lose out when Apple opens a slightly cooler Mars resort two lava tubes over. Or there could be another Great Depression on Earth, limiting the desire for costly space vacations. So what’s a space CEO to do? In terrestrial company towns, if a Great Depression shows up, one option is for the town to just fold. It’s not a fun option, but at least there’s a train out of town or a chance to hitchhike. Mars has a once-every-two-years launch window.* Even a trip to Earth from the Moon requires a 380,000-kilometer shot in a rocket, which will likely never be cheap.

The biggest rockets on the drawing board today could perhaps transport a hundred people at a time. Even for a settlement of only ten thousand people, that’s a lot of transport infrastructure in case the town needs to be evacuated. Throw in that, at least right now, we don’t even know if people born and raised on the Moon or Mars can physiologically handle coming “back” to Earth, and, well, things get interesting.

The result is that there is a huge ethical onus on whoever’s setting this thing up. Not just to have a huge reserve of funding and supplies and transportation, so that people can be saved or evacuated if need be, but also to do the science in advance to determine if it’s even possible to bring home people born in partial Earth gravity.

There is some precedent for governments being willing to prop up company towns. Many old Soviet monotowns now receive economic aid from the Russian government. We should note, however, that keeping a small Russian village on life support will be a lot cheaper than maintaining an armada of megarockets for supplies and transportation.

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