Capitalism and the Profit-Motive Didn’t Create the James Webb Space Telescope

We have two good examples of economic systems and individual scientific workers doing what they do that offer a good illustration of why the US is so screwed up, and why it doesn’t have to be that way.

The first is the extraordinary new Webb telescope heading rapidly towards its parking orbit at the Lagrange point 2.2 where its telescope, reportedly 100 times more powerful than the already extraordinary orbiting Hubble telescope, will be able to show images of early galaxies formed only a short time after the Big Bang.

That telescope, which has had to go through over 300 automated or remotely controlled steps — in order — to open up from its fetal position crammed inside the oversized faring of a European-built Ariane rocket — was designed and built by scientists and engineers working on salary and launched by a rocket designed and built by a government agency. That is to say, nobody involved was a capitalist. Okay, the prime contractor for the satellite telescope is Northrop Grumman but that company is a Pentagon arms contractor, and as such, is actually as much a state-capitalist enterprise as any state enterprise in China or Russia. Payments are all sole sources by the government — in this case, NASA — and pricing is what the government says it will be.

The whole process has gone flawlessly, aside from the usual delays in such mega projects, right before our eyes, even though nobody except the top execs of Northrop Grumman is getting rich from any of it. If all continues to go well, we will soon be seeing the results: incredible discoveries about the beginning of time itself and the universe’s creation, as we all as, eventually, actual images of planets orbiting stars in our portion of the Milky Way, with the added ability to “see” what kinds of atmospheres they have, and perhaps if we’re lucky, any evidence of trace gases that would suggest life on some of them.

Now let’s look at the process of combatting the current Covid pandemic. Both the US and the British governments relied on private companies to produce vaccines as well as testing kits in a hurry. Four companies — Pfizer, Astra-Zeneca, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — delivered on the vaccines, though in Astra-Zeneca’s case, they tried to hide poor results in the rushed testing phase of their vaccine, not reporting on significant negative reactions some vaccine test recipients were experiencing. The other companies’ vaccines worked to varying extents (this author received the Moderna vaccine twice and a third time as a booster without a problem and has so far avoided getting Covid). But the rollout of these capitalist products has been a failure at ending the pandemic because they have all refused to release their patents to allow cheap generic vaccines to be mass-produced by factories in countries like India and Brazil that have the facilities to do so and protect the bulk of humanity, preferring to reap the profits offered by selling their wares to the US government for distribution to just those countries willing to pay for the doses.

The result of this greed is that most of the world is still unvaccinated, and is thus a massive breeding ground for ever more new variants of the original Covid 19 Sars-2 strain, which then come back to our shores able to dodge the new vaccines and reinfect us all.

This is a good moment to point out that Cuba, one of the world’s few socialist countries, and one which has out of necessity developed a world-class biotech industry, all government-owned, has on its own, and in the face of a strangling US embargo on scientific equipment and supplies, developed not one but five different Covid vaccines. These vaccines, including a nasal vaccine, all tested in Cuba and Iran, have proven as good as US vaccines, and have been used to give Cuba one of the most vaccinated populations in the world, second only to the United Arab Emirates, with 90% of its people having received one dose of vaccine and 83% two doses.

But Cuba is being prevented from making vastly more vaccine to provide to hard-hit and struggling Latin American countries by barring provision to the island nation of needed syringes and of the necessary adjuvants that extend shelf-life and improve the function of the anti-Covid sera. Fortunately, the World Health Organization is close to approving some of them, which would probably free up some resources to overcome the unconscionable US blockade.

It’s probably fair to ask at this point: If US scientists and engineers can produce a huge complex technological marvel like the Webb telescope all while working on a tight budgeted government project and on salary, why can’t ultra-capitalist super billionaire Elon Musk or the lucratively compensated execs at General Motors produce an electric car that doesn’t self-immolate like the Tesla parked in the driveway of a suburban home in my town of Maple Glen (the first was so hot it destroyed the whole home along with the vehicle) or the Volts now being discontinued by GM because of their flawed battery systems?

Our so-called political “leaders” in Congress and the White House, whether Republican or Democrat, keep spouting their blather about the supposed wonders of America’s “free-enterprise” system, the need to allow wealthy people to earn a profit for their “creative risk taking,” and the need to reduce “onerous” regulations on their operations all, supposedly, for the long-term good of society. Meanwhile, most American-made products are pure crap or if they work reasonably well, like Apple’s computers, are actually made outside the US in countries like China, by companies that are essentially state-owned with a patina of private shareholders.

Maybe what it will take for brainwashed US citizens to wake up to the fact that we’re all being lied to about the marvels of capitalism and the “essential” need for minimal regulation on employers and low-to-zero taxes on corporations and the rich, will be for the “socialist” Webb telescope to discover an advanced socialist-type society thriving on some distant planet around a nearby star — a place where they aren’t destroying their planetary home by promoting the fantasy of endless growth, don’t have obscenely wealthy plutocrats owning more than half the assets of the planet, and where everyone gets along without countries, tribes, national borders, racial animosities, wars and mass killing.

Maybe we Earthlings would be inspired then to try and achieve the same state of harmony, peace and respect for our environment here on Earth. Nah! Sad experience suggests it is more likely our leaders would immediately set themselves the task of figuring out a way to build an invasion force to conquer and enslave those wimpy do-gooder alien beings and steal their planet’s resources.

Meanwhile, until we find such an alien society of alien socialists, enjoy the coming discoveries and wonders of the government-designed-and-built product of the salaried US and European scientists and engineers, the Webb Telescope, and be sure to tell your bought-and-paid local Congressional delegation that you want the government to release the patents on all the taxpayer-funded private patents on Covid vaccines, and to stop blocking needed supplies to Cuba for mass production of their cheap and effective vaccines. In fact, tell them to end the over six-decade embargo on Cuba altogether while you’re at it.

CounterPunch contributor DAVE LINDORFF is a producer along with MARK MITTEN on a forthcoming feature-length documentary film on the life of Ted Hall and his wife of 51 years, Joan Hall. A Participant Film, “A Compassionate Spy” is directed by STEVE JAMES and will premiere Sept. 2 at the Venice Film Festival. Lindorff is also writing a book on Ted Hall titled “A Spy for No Country,” to be published in Fall 2023 by Prometheus Press.