Friday, 29 March 2019

Why space technology?

Should government spend so much money in space technology?  Especially when there are other crying needs like food, education, health etc. 
Why at all Humans need to go out of earth?  We need more than a lifetime to see all the places on earth – land, let alone oceans and their depths which is more than twice as that of land.   Put together as a whole human race also, we haven’t yet seen the whole earth.
Are we wasting time, money and energy in developing space technology?

These are some of the questions that come to my mind when I think about space technology.  To answer them, I need to go into a hypothetical illustration.  Let us offer a person all the food, cloth, shelter, essential home gadgets including TV, mobile (which are of course using satellites incidentally).  Let’s also allow the person to socialize.  The only condition/rider to that person is that he/she should not do anything new.  After a point of time, it will suffocate the person !!!
Pioneering has always been an integral distinct instinct of Humans.  Inquisitive minds have resulted in discovering new worlds in both micro and macro levels.  We have ripped open matter into elements, atoms, protons, electrons, photons, bosons etc. and still literally continue splitting.  We have understood solar system, galaxy, super galaxy, universe etc. and still expanding the outer boundaries.   Some humans dive deep into the ocean, but others see through microscope and telescope.  There is no doubt that space technology is a natural corollary of the inquisitive human mind.

Now coming to the government spending on space technology… among other things, History shows that war is the time when a group of people come together and spend all that they have in building weapons of attack or protection.  Also, peace and stability happens ironically when one player emerges bigger than all others.  In the post cold war era, in a nuclear world, a country becomes a player when it has Inter Continental Ballistic Missile - ICBM capability.  Cryogenic engines and rocket launching with pay loads have defined that capability.  By investing in these technologies, a country gets the dual benefit of defense as well as space capabilities.

Though nowhere imminent, it also provides us a scope for finding an alternate place to live, in case of any disaster or complete exhaustion of all the resources in the earth.  The stories of Indian spice and el dorado has long attracted discoverers and voyagers.  Though no such stories about space are there as of now, we are trying to hear some such things through the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence – SETI.

Satellites are the most used products of space technology as of now.  If a satellite remains static vis a vis the earth’s rotation, they are called geo stationary satellites. With three such satellites, we can cover the entire earth and can triangulate any reference point in the earth.  That is called the GPS – global positioning system. In order to achieve stationary positioning and coverage, they need to be at a particular height where there is little or no effect of earth’s gravity.  Hence, these satellites are farther from earth surface and launching them needs higher capacity rockets like the GSLV – Geo stationary Satellite Launch Vehicles.
There are other satellites which are launched to orbit at lower heights.  Though these are predecessor for the geo stationary satellites, they are required even now, to get data about the atmosphere and earth surface.  They are generally used in weather forecasting and remote sensing.  Such satellites are called polar satellites, launched by lesser capacity rockets like the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles – PSLV.  Since they are in lower heights, they are subject to pull of earth’s gravity.  They continuously fall towards earth in a spiraling orbit and finally get burnt in space.

The most visible positive impact of space technology is the quantum improvement in the speed of communication.  While the first marathon runner had to physically run the distance to deliver the news about enemy movement, we can now share the distance run by us with our fellow marathoners around the world on a real time basis.  The world indeed has become a global village !!!

Introducing the subject of Economics

In order to really learn about something, it is desirable to understand it’s relevance to our life.  In other words, it is easier to understand a thing if we know how it helps in our daily life.

When it comes to ‘subjects’, I used to wonder what is ‘Economics’?  It is not a natural one like Physics, where one can see the effect of gravity on a jumping ball, or like Biology, where there are living things that grow and multiply.  It is not a primary tool like Language which is used to communicate with others, or Mathematics which is used to count and count faster.

‘Economics’ hence appeared to be a man-made subject. But things like money, prices of goods, savings etc. have been directly affecting our lives and we can ignore them only at our own peril.

I think the best way to understand economics is to see it as a language we use to communicate regarding ‘how much we value things or acts’.  Some communications are understood only by the giver and the receiver – say a birthday card.  The same item does not present the same value for a third person – you cant pass on the card to other person.  So the language that will be common to all will be a ‘currency’ or ‘money’. 

When someone sells a product for say Rs.100/- they communicate that it holds a value of Rs.100/- in their perception.  When a buyer declares that the thing is cheaper/costlier than its worth, the perception changes.  If the seller sticks to the value he/she thinks it is worth, and doesn’t change the price, it is termed cost/supply driven.  If the seller changes the price based on what the buyer thinks it is worth, then it is termed market/demand driven.

In other words, in a cost driven scenario, if a person sells a product for Rs.100/-, he/she communicates that X (say Rs.80/-) is the cost incurred and Rs.20/- is the value that he/she thinks has been added by making the product.  In a market driven scenario, if a person buys a product for Rs.100/- he/she thinks that the product is worth that much, immaterial of the cost incurred.  In such a scenario, the seller has to find ways and means to bring down the cost to Rs.80/- in order to get the value he/she thinks is deserved.

Either way… ’Economics’ should have helped the Humans to achieve lesser cost of living… so that poor people can afford at least the basic necessities of life.  But we commonly hear our elders saying something like… in our days, 1kg of tomato was Re.1 !!!  For all the fancy terms, definitions that this subject has, it has never brought down the price of the products apart from few exceptions and that too mostly items of luxuries.  ‘Economics’ as a subject appears to favor the rich rather than the poor ?!?

Theoretically, it is possible for every one to bring down their prices resulting in products becoming cheaper than what it was.  A person with Rs.1000/- could then be equivalent to a millionaire of today.  Such a thing is not happening because it requires each and every one to do it and even if one person does otherwise, the scheme falls off.  Also, it is not easily understood by all.  While the reverse is easy to understand !!!  A person spending 10 out of 100 rupees for food can continue spending 100 out of 1000 rupees for food.  Inflation is hence naturally sought after.

Okay, but see what the government is doing? Prudence says that one should not spend more than one’s income.  We do need to save or keep some money for unforeseen emergencies.  But the government is always spending more than what it has !!!  some fancy term ‘deficit financing’.  At the same time people cry that ‘fiscal deficit’ should be under control.  Why should government spend more at all?  Let it keep a ‘fiscal excess’ !!!  The country’s credibility will grow ?!?

To understand this, one needs to see where does the government spend the money.  If it spends on infrastructure or public goods where no private investment is coming up, but the projects will help many businesses to grow, then it is okay to do ‘deficit financing’.  The government also expects people to bring in new products or services to the market and people will need more money to buy those things.  The government then can ‘print’ more money and ensure that the prices don’t soar.  Thereby the government can bridge the deficit too.  Two birds in a stone !!!
However the following two questions come in mind….
1, Why doesn’t the government print money and give it to the poor directly?
2, Inflation is good but why government doesn’t want the prices to soar? 

The most likely reasons are…. If the government needs to give money directly to the poor, the mechanism of identifying the poor has to be water tight.  Even then, it will be counter intuitive, as there will be reward for being poor and doing nothing.  In a country like ours, with large population of poor, the total amount required will be humongous.  With regard to inflation, a little bit of inflation is okay but if prices soar, the poor are likely to be the worst affected persons.

And like the Chinese proverb, it is better to teach a man about fishing rather than giving him a fish.  So expenditure in improving the skill set of the people is a good place for the government to invest even with ‘deficit financing’.

(This is an attempt to open up the subject ‘Economics’ and understanding how it affects daily life and governance.  Feedback is most welcome <ravichanderirts@gmail.com>)