Tuesday, June 07, 2011

America's moon mission and the public sector

John F Kennedy's moon mission was meant to make a point about US supremacy in science after the jolt delivered by the Soviet Union's putting a man in orbit. It cost an enormous sum- $150 bn in 2010 dollars, according to an article in the Economist, "five times as much as the Manhattan Project and 18 times the cost of digging the Panama Canal." The Economist points to an irony at the heart of the moon mission:

The Apollo programme, which was summoned into being in order to demonstrate the superiority of the free-market system, succeeded by mobilising vast public resources within a centralised bureaucracy under government direction. In other words, it mimicked aspects of the very command economy it was designed to repudiate.
However, attempts to mobilise the public sector for other large projects failed, for example, Lyndon Johnson's attempt at social engineering on a huge scale. The Economist believes that Obama's calls for a leap in technology and infrastructure will fail for the same reason.

The Economist oversimplifies, methinks. The Apollo mission succeeded, not just because it invoked national pride. It was a case where expense was no consideration because a matter of national prestige was involved. Other giant public sector projects do not come with a blank cheque, expenditures are subjected to scrutiny and are pruned at the first opportunity.

Here in India, we have seen that several projects in the public sector have delivered for the same reason- ISRO, BARC, DRDO, IITs and IIMs. It is only when people start demanding results commensurate with expenditure that we have a problem- and indeed that is what is happening today. No longer are people willing to back the pursuit of excellence with an open purse.

In short, it is not the nature of the project that matters or the fact that is in the public sector, it is a matter of the resources with which it is backed.

1 comment:

Raghu said...

Another way to look at it would be that it was the free market system that made all the money available for the government to be able to fund the project.