The Need to do Arithmetic

John McCarthy of Stanford University has the following in his .signature file:

Those who refuse to do arithmetic are doomed to speak nonsense.

Over the years I have seen too many instances of errant nonsense that a little bit of arithmetic would have prevented. I think that the power of arithmetic is not fully appreciated. Even people in very powerful positions utter complete nonsense when they refuse to do simple calculations.

In the recent workshop that I was at, I had presented our model we call RISC (Rural Infrastructure & Services Commons). The model is based on the recognition that the provision of infrastructure is a necessary precondition for services that are necessary for rural development. Infrastructure investment is ‘lumpy.’ You have to have at least a certain minimum amount of investment before it is of any use to anybody.

Since there is a minimum scale below which infrastructural investment is not viable, and since total investment is limited, providing infrastructure to every of the 600,000 Indian villages is not an efficient option. Therefore, RISC recommends that infrastructure investments be made in locations that are accessible by a large number of villages to start off with. Later, as economic conditions improve, village level development of infrastructure would make more sense. This, of course, implies that the facilities will not be immediately accessible to everyone. Some will incur a travel cost. Moreover, the travel cost will be relatively greater on women than on men considering that men are more inclined to travel the 10 kms or so the average facility may be located.

One participant objected to the model based on the differential travel cost. She held that the solution is that every village should have all facilities. Here is where we need to do some arithmetic. Add up all resources for infrastructure investemnt at our disposal. Divide that by 600,000 and you have quantity x, the available resource per village. Find out the investment cost of the minimum viable unit of infrastructure and call it y. Now compute the ratio y over x and call that number z. If z is equal to or less than 1, we can provide every village with the required infrastructure base. Otherwise, we need to invest y resources in a central location that z villages will have to share.

It is true that women would be at a disadvantage relative to men when it comes to travel. But then the answer is not that infrastructure resources should be squandered based on gender equity considerations but rather that women should be assisted in some way so that they overcome their mobility issues. (It is always more practical for Mohammed to go to the mountain than for the mountain to come to Mohammed.)

Let’s do arithmetic and persuade others to do some arithmetic as well.