Poor Countries in Space
India successfully launched a Mars mission. This has come with some criticism (hat tip) because there are in fact still poor people in India. As in my-kid-starved-to-death poverty rather than relative, within-nation, income-defined poverty, which in combination with magical purchasing-power-parity dust allows us to disbelieve in poverty.
This critique of space programs is borne of ignorance.
The people issuing these critiques have a mental model of India in which the government allocates its resources first to its most dire need, second to the second most dire, and on until it runs out of money. India doesn’t do this, and indeed no country does this. Instead, a bunch of money is spread out among a bunch of priorities. The National Park Service isn’t as important as making Social Security whole. Yet the US hasn’t sold the Grand Canyon to Disney, and seniors will eat dog food long before it is considered.
The Wall Street Journal had a 6-part series on “Starving in India” in 2012. One of the first things we learn is that India is calorically self-sufficient; it produces enough by grain feed everyone within its borders. But,
Inefficient planning leaves grain rotting in government warehouses rather than getting to the hungry. Botched government surveys leave poor families without the ration cards to which they are supposed to be entitled. Corrupt ration shop dealers pilfer food and sell it on the black market rather than to intended beneficiaries.
Critics allege that government warehouses have at times allowed millions of tons of grains to rot. Be thankful I am leaving out the individual stories of those the Journal details as having starved to death while this happened.
India does have programs to help these people:
Schools are mandated to provide mid-day meals for children, but many still don’t. The Integrated Child Development Service, which is supposed to offer supplemental nutrition and care for pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children under the age of six, was closed on a recent visit. … According to official estimates from a 2004-2005 national survey, half of Indian households who should be eligible for such benefits don’t receive them. In Bihar that figure is 80%.
Later we find a hint of a cause:
The investigation also found that the grain shop dealer in the area was selling grains on the open market and falsifying records to make it look like villagers were actually getting their food delivered.
Considering this is the Wall Street Journal, I’m a little disappointed they didn’t continue to explore the motivations here. Libertarians may be screwy, but one helpful observation they make is that at the ground level “the government guarantees X” just means “a guy with a badge has been told to provide X.” Just like the Fifth Amendment in the US, the food safety net in India appears to be a nice, feel-good, theoretical guarantee that doesn’t mean much for its intended beneficiaries.
Imagine you are an Indian grain dealer. You probably aren’t dating Bollywood actresses. You make (some) money by selling grain. But then there is a government program that says you need to sell grain to the most objectionable customers at 20% of the market rate (or even free).
You weren’t making much money to begin with, and now you are threatened with being inundated with the sort of people who would get turned away at the door from a Walmart and told to come back once they clean up and get their act together.
And they don’t pay.
It makes sense then that you would seek to make sure program cards aren’t issued. Maybe you strike an agreement with the agency that hands them in return for some other rice-related favor. And if someone does show up with a card, maybe you say you’re out of stock as long as you know there will be a customer willing to pay the market rate coming through the door later.
To put it more bluntly, if your job is to trade grains, and you give a significant portion of your grains away for free, then you are very bad at your job, and your family will suffer for it, even if that is what the law requires you to do.
I know this seems weird from a western-industrialized-nation perspective because the norms here are that government officers are supposed to do their jobs as specified or be fired or prosecuted. That doesn’t mean those norms are universal, particularly in countries where those officers don’t get paid that well to begin with.
This is a problem with horrible consequences, but it can’t be fixed by moving money from space exploration to food programs. It probably can’t be fixed by money at all. It can only be fixed by structural changes to various aspects of the program or economic growth that renders the programs superfluous.
Slate Star Codex addresses people’s answers to the following question:
Would you rather the medieval Church had spent all of its money helping the poor, rather than supporting the arts. So that maybe there were fewer poor people back in medieval times, but we wouldn’t have any cathedrals or triptychs or the Sistine Chapel?
People when asked generally support the decision to build the cathedrals over helping the poor. I find this response understandable, but it’s hard to square people’s endorsement of the decisions of the Church with the judgment currently aimed at India.