Flying High

Column by Paul Hein.

Exclusive to STR

Guess who’s launched a rocket into orbit around Mars? It’s quite an accomplishment, since about half of the world’s previous attempts have failed. Would you guess Saudi Arabia? Dubai? Nope.

Would it surprise you to learn it was Liechtenstein? It sure would surprise me, because it isn’t Liechtenstein. Nor Monaco.

OK, enough guessing. It was India! That vast land of 1.2 billion people, most miserably poor, has succeeded in its first attempt to do what many others nations have failed to do, and on its very first attempt. The headline in my local paper announced ”Successful Mars mission fills India with pride.” I doubt it.

In the final leg of your approach to the airport at Mumbai, you can see acres of miserable huts, so crowded that adjacent hovels share a wall, with roofs of mis-matched sheets of metal, and unpaved dirt paths forming a grid between rows of these pitiful dwellings. Would the inhabitants of these shacks be filled with pride that, over 400 million miles away, a piece of hardware labeled “Made in India” was flying around Mars? Oddly enough, many of them would, but, I’m sure, not all.

The dean of engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, in Bangalore, is enthusiastic about the mission. “What better goal is there to reach for,” he’s declared, “to prove we can accomplish our goals?” His enthusiasm is understandable: only Russia, the U.S., and the European Space Agency have accomplished it.

If I lived in the shack city near the airport, I’d be asking myself what “goals” does the dean consider important? Granted, establishing India as a resource for technical education and rocket science will boost the country’s economy by luring investors. Will the investments be of much benefit to the country’s wretched poor? Sooner or later there’s bound to be some “trickle down” effect, but that could be a long time in coming. Couldn’t there be a “better goal” than orbiting Mars?

What if India’s burgeoning engineers, scientists, and computer experts devoted their expertise to putting plumbing, running water, and electricity into the shanty towns that dot the country? Yes, that would constitute a transfer of wealth from one group to another, but government spending always has that result. It seems that the spending ends up not diffused for the many, but concentrated for the benefit of the few most powerful, who are probably already affluent.

The Rulers obtained the $75 million cost of the project by three possible methods: they taxed the people, they borrowed, or they simply printed it. Regardless, the people will end up, directly or indirectly, footing the bill, and those most severely affected will be the poorest.

I suggested above that even among the poorest of India’s poor, there will be some—perhaps many--who will look upon this space achievement with satisfaction. It is this misplaced pride that assists, if not makes possible, the launching of grandiose projects at the expense of the people who will, one way or another, pay for it. The magnificent palaces of Europe seem to be regarded by the people upon whose shoulders rest the cost of building/maintaining these noble piles as something to be proud of.

“Our royals have bigger palaces than your royals!” Did the slaves on the plantation get a sense of satisfaction that their master’s mansion was the largest in the county? I’m sure at least some of them did. Consider the pride that Americans take in the White House, or Air Force One.

You may not enjoy being compelled to pay for projects that you would not finance if you were free, but if such projects are built, and are magnificent, it’s understandable that you might feel some perverse pleasure in knowing your efforts helped make it possible. So perhaps the headline was correct: India (meaning Indians, of course) is filled with pride. Personally, if I were an Indian, I’d prefer plumbing and electricity, but glitz and glamour trump infrastructure every time!

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