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Who profits from killing Pluto?


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You may recall (as I and my offspring do) the controversy about six years ago around the demotion of Pluto. There seemed to me to be reasonable arguments on both sides, and indeed, my household included pro-Pluto partisans and partisans for a new, clear definition of “planet” that might end up leaving Pluto on the exo-planet side of the line.

At the time, Neil deGrasse Tyson was probably the most recognizable advocate of the anti-Pluto position, and since then he has not been shy about reaffirming his position. I had taken this vocal (even gleeful) advocacy as just an instance of a scientist working to do effective public outreach, but recently, I’ve been made aware of reasons to believe that there may be more going on with Neil deGrasse Tyson here.

You may be familiar with the phenomenon of offshore banking, which involves depositors stashing their assets in bank accounts in countries with much lower taxes than the jurisdictions in which the depositors actually reside. Indeed, residents of the U.S. have occasionally used offshore bank accounts (and bank secrecy policies) to hide their money from the prying (and tax-assessing) eyes of the Internal Revenue Service.

Officially, those who are subject to U.S. income tax are required to declare any offshore bank accounts they might have. However, since the offshore banks themselves have generally not been required by law to report interest income on their accounts to the U.S. tax authorities, lots of account holders have kept mum about it, too.

Recently, however, the U.S. government has been more vigorous in its efforts to track down this taxable offshore income, and has put more pressure on the offshore bankers not to aid their depositors in hiding assets. International pressure seems to be pushing banks in the direction of more transparency and accountability.

What does any of this have to do with Neil deGrasse Tyson, or with Pluto?

You may recall, back when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) was formally considering the question of Pluto’s status, that Neil deGrasse Tyson was a vocal proponent of demoting Pluto from planethood. Despite his position at the Hayden Planetarium, a position in which he had rather more contact with school children and other interested non-scientists making heartfelt arguments in support of Pluto’s planethood, Neil deGrasse Tyson was utterly unmoved.

Steely in his determination to get Pluto reclassified. And forward looking. Add to that remarkably well-dressed (seriously, have you seen his vests?) for a Ph.D. astrophysicist who has spent most of his career working for museums.

The only way it makes sense is if Neil deGrasse Tyson has been stashing money someplace it can earn interest without being taxed. Given his connections, this can only mean off-world banking.

But again, what does this have to do with Pluto?

Pluto killer though he may be, Neil deGrasse Tyson is law abiding. There have so far been no legal requirements to report interest income earned in banks on other planets. But Neil deGrasse Tyson, as a forward looking kind of guy, undoubtedly recognizes that regulators are rapidly moving in the direction of requiring those subject to U.S. income tax to declare their bank accounts on other planets.

The regulators, however, seem uninterested in making any such requirements for those with assets in off-world banks that are not on planets. Which means that while Pluto is less than 1/5 the mass of Earth’s Moon, as a non-planet, it will remain a convenient place for Neil deGrasse Tyson to benefit from compound interest without increasing his tax liability.

It kind of casts his stance on Pluto in a different light, doesn’t it?

[More details in this story from the Associated Press.]

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. matthewfrancis 10:18 am 04/1/2012

    He may be banking on Pluto, but that means his assets are frozen.

    Link to this
  2. 2. thenewgreen 11:15 pm 04/1/2012

    His assets are not only frozen @mathewfrancis but they’ve also been “dwarfed”. -yuck yuck.

    As for his fancy vests, I like them too. Here’s a video of him being interviewed by Stephen Colbert donning said vest: http://hubski.com/pub?id=10548

    Link to this

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