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The Gupta Option

This article is an early stage draft. Please email me suggestions!


Things to Read or Do

State In A Box Overview which briefly outlines a radically new approach to SSTR based in distributed infrastructure and Jeffersonian ideals.

Winning the Long Peace - about extending the concept of the nation state to reflect the realities of current American policy.

STAR-TIDES and Starfish Networks: Supporting Stressed Populations with Distributed Talent - National Defense University, Defense Horizons 70, co-author

Soft Development Paths - Is there any way that everybody in the world can live reasonably well? Yes, but we need to work on the basics...

The Future of Poverty - how computers and networks give us new ways of knowing which may end poverty forever

STAR-TIDES briefing at National Defense University - one hour video plus supporting documents of the presentation I did about distributed infrastructure and the Hexayurt Project for NDU.

Severe Panflu Response Strategies - a really serious look at losing 25% of the human race in a single year, and what we can do about it.

STAR-TIDES - notes and boards from our demonstration at the Pentagon. Six ages of good stuff on infrastructure and resilience half way through. See the STAR-TIDES home page for context.

Hexayurt Project - my main activity, a free/open source disaster relief and emergency shelter system.

Networked Domestic Disaster Response - presents a well-reviewed plan for evacuating millions to tens of millions of American citizens in catastrophic emergencies.

Facilitating International Development through Free / Open Source - about changing the direction of international development by giving away free designs for great and useful technologies, like autorickshaws and water purifiers!

State In A Box - Identity Services Architecture - about re-engineering the nation state based on modern technology, starting with identity management. Includes extensive material on biometrics, OpenID, PKI and is fully buzzword compliant. It's the start on a book.

Our Future With Islam - about Islam as a religion, culture and political system, and long term prospects for peaceful co-existence without falling back on Mutually Assured Destruction.

Saving the World on the Cheap - about charities, governments, and the need for a new way to fund lifesaving engineering projects.

Resilience and Opportunity in 4GW - on decentralized infrastructure and microfinance as was of moderating 4GW conflicts.

Discuss at The Sietch Forums

My blog

Saving the World on the Cheap

You know the statistics. Well, if you don't, you should. They're pretty bad.

All numbers give or take a few million
Some (unlucky) indviduals appear in more than one category

The problem comes when you start thinking about what the numbers mean.

Now these are some pretty brutal numbers. Take a breath, it's about to get worse.

How Far Does Money Really Go?

With the best will in the world, we can't buy people out of this.

There are two ways of looking at money. The conventional approach is what is used by most aid agencies and charities: "only $20 will give this child food for a month" or whatever the project is.

This is a "feel good" approach. It suggests that, maybe, the problem is financial. Somebody with enough money could possibly save them.

And that works, right up until you do the accounting.

Here's the problem.

  Dollar Value Dollers per Head
(1bn poorest)
Iraq War $1,200,000,000,000 $1,200
Education Spending $70,000,000,000 $70
Aid Spending $23,000,000,000 $23

So unless you're willing to spend in "Iraq War" units, you really don't have enough money to solve these problems.

That's not immediately obvious, until you look at it this way.

  Dollar Value Dollers per Head
(1bn poorest)
Percentage of Income
at $1 per day
Iraq War $1,200,000,000,000 $1,200 330%
Education Spending $70,000,000,000 $70 19%
Aid Spending $23,000,000,000 $23 6%

Ignore all other problems. Just divvy up the money among the 1bn poorest. It just doesn't go very far. 20% more income on "practically nothing" is a bit more rice, maybe lentils more often, but it's a really, really small improvement in quality of life. And that's the education budget.

Now look at the aid budget line. 6% more money. That's one additional spoonful of rice a day, more or less. We are not buying anybody out of anything.

Of course, now you look at that top line. And you say three times their annual income? Well, yeah. Two things - firstly, that's our spending over several years. Secondly, that's $4000 per American or roughly $12,000 per American tax payer.

So, sorry, no matter how much you want to help the poor, it's not going to be done through direct aid and buying power, particularly of the kind so common in the Kleptocracies of the poor world, aided and abetted by the World Bank etc.

Patching Capitalism: Addressing Market Failures

Let us say that the 1bn poorest each put one dollar of their annual income (0.3% of their annual income, say $100 for you) into a pot to pay for research to fix their fundamental problems.

That pot is $1,000,000,000.

Compare with, say, the cost of stamping out polio, which is around $700,000,000 per year and you begin to see that the poor actually have quite a lot of money because there are so many of them.

The problem is that there's no way to efficiently pool the resources of the very poor into collective action on their basic problems. The transactional costs through mechanisms like tax collection simply swamp the available budget.

The "Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" model suggests that maybe capitalism is efficient enough to scrape together a few pennies from these folks and turn it into research and development of the basic servics they need, and associated infrastructure build out.

I'm waiting to see on that one, but I think that we're going to find two problems: cash siphoning out of their informal economies, and very little research going into certain fundamental, unfashionable, unprofitable problems like effective birth control.

Ok, Smart Guy...

What's your plan?

How much is germ theory worth?

How much is Linux worth?

How much is arithemetic worth?

There's a fixed cost to teaching arithmetic or germ theory, or how to use Linux. But the products of these systems of understanding are free or at least have their costs amortized over an enormous area.

What do I mean by that? Well, arithmetic is cognitive infrastructure and it has a cost - teaching years, school buildings, and all the rest of the physical structures required to teach arithmetic, generation after generation, to little humans.

Those costs are amoritzed over every transaction in the global economy which requires counting to conduct successfully.

This is why we educate: the return on investment is so vast that we do not really care who pays for it as long as it gets done right.

My contention is that the development of certain sets of tools is so important and has such an enormous return on investement that we do not care who does it, as long as it gets done right. I have a provisional list of starting places.

This is a Little Abstract

Education is expensive because you have to pay for every individual educated. It's slow, it takes time, it may take generations for certain kinds of co-emergent habits like "studying" to be translated into the culture. Simply making the changes in lifestyle required to allow people that many economically unproductive years is plenty to take a long, long time.

So let's go back to the linux analogy. You can use it without knowing how it works. The amortized cost of learning how to use the tool is vastly lower than the cost of learning how to make it.

We don't remember the original costs of inventing arithmetic, but I'm willing to bet it was several generations of extremely smart thinkers reasoning out the basics of number. We know a lot more about where Geometry came from, and it's that same kind of cultural-level investment in figuring things out.

So here's what I'm talking about. Teach germ theory, where possible. Everywhere else, encapsulate germ theory into a user interface people can cope with, like solar water pasteurization indicators. Drop it in the water, put it in the sun, when the green stuff moves to the bottom, the water is safe to drink. If you want another green thing because yours stopped working, have somebody phone the number stamped on the back of each unit. That, right there, is billions of dollars worth of R&D plunk-pressed out in a one dollar indicator.

This is The Plan - systematically leverage the knowledge base and engineering resources of the developed world to help the poor out of poverty.

The problem is, who pays?

Because of the aforementioned market failure due to the problem of getting the tiny bits of money the very poor can afford regularized into a stream sufficient to do R&D on, particularly given that the resulting products are likely to be immediately cloned or simply too simple or too old to be protected by patent law, we have to find a new funding model to take care of these people.

We take care of the engineers, and the engineers take care of the poor.

Why Can't Conventional Charities Do This?

Conventional charities ask you for $20 to feed one child. The implicit contract there is that they're going to do it.

Engineering is an uncertain business, much prone to failure. A charity has to choose between paying $20 to feed one child, or paying for a little of an engineer's time to work on a problem, possibly without success.

Charities cannot absorb risk.

A dollar spent trying something which fails is person they did not help in their stated mission. What this creates is a cultural desire to play it safe, and keep solving the problem the same way it was solved yesterday. Although there is a broad range of innovation in the charitable world, compared to high technology and engineering, charities are barely innovating..

So what we need is a new class of entities - not a charity, not a business, not a conventional educational institution. The closest models we have are free/open source software projects where many people throw in a little of their time or money to create something together.

In free/open source software, the risk is absorbed in two ways. Firstly, the licenses mean that your work is never absolutely wasted because, even in the event of project failure, the code remains available for other uses. The second risk absorber is that people invest spare cycles in free/open source projects most of the time, rather than working on it with the expectation that it will oe day take care of them.

The big issue is this: for the most part, nobody is dying waiting for their free/open source software to be completed, so spare cycles are enough to get the job done. Plus big companies have the ability to profit from some kinds of free/open source activites, so they are willing to pay and to absorb risk.

So What Do We Do?

We need activity directed at building engineering solutions for the developing world, from entities which are not among the current classes of social infrastructure we have (.gov, .mil, .edu, .org) because these bodies have had at least 20 or 30 years since the discovery of appropriate technology, and have done very little to actually roll out the solutions we all know are on the table, hidden somewhere in the laws of nature themselves.

These new entities provide risk management solutions to engineers who wish to dedicate their lives to working on free/open technology solutions to the pressing and urgent needs of the developing world.

I want your help defining what such an entity would look like, and then building one.