The achievements and under-achievements of our species

A friend sent me this spectacular time lapse video of the space shuttle preparation in an email. if you haven't seen it, you can watch it right here.

Now, I was as much a dinosaurs-and-legos-kid as any, so I fully appreciate how magnificently cool this is. We, as a species, have systematized the launch of a half-dozen individuals out of the atmosphere. Absolutely an amazing achievement. It has rightfully gone in the books. "Humans - planet leaving: A+".

But I can't help thinking about how stupendously we've underachieved at other tasks. Take for example this striking quote from the recent Foreign Affairs article And Justice for All: Enforcing Human Rights for the World's Poor by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros:

"The average person in the developing world has never met a lawyer in his or her life. In the United States, there is approximately one lawyer for every 749 people. In Zambia, by contrast, there is only one lawyer for every 25,667 people; in Cambodia, there is one for every 22,402 people. There are more lawyers in the New York offices of some major law firms than there are in all of Zambia or Cambodia....

...A 2002 World Health Organization report, meanwhile, showed that in some countries, nearly two out of three women reported having been physically assaulted, and nearly half reported that their first instance of sexual intercourse was forced. The problem is pervasive. Surveys of villages in India cited by the United Nations reveal that in the 1990s, 16 percent of all maternal deaths during pregnancy came from domestic abuse. In Peru, about 40 percent of girls will be victims of rape or attempted rape by the age of 14. In parts of southern Africa, 78 percent of HIV-infected women and girls report having been raped -- AIDS-education programs do little to help these women and children."

I don't even know how to think about this statement. Surely, it's not very precise or accurate, but even if it's off by a factor of two, all of its numbers are mind-boggling. The books probably say "Humans - pervasive law, order and mutual respect: D"

The resources and organization it takes to design, build and launch a space shuttle are enormous. They might even be on the order of those needed to design, build and launch a network of law schools and police academies. So what's going on?

The first order answer is obvious, both are public goods, but in one there is substantially larger gains to the provider. Sort of. But what are the gains of the space shuttle? I think a lot of it was national pride, back when Kennedy challenged us to do it. So why don't we take national pride in helping to secure human rights in poor countries?

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