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The little computer that could vs. the companies that wouldn’t

This month, progress triumphed — if ever so briefly — over profits. In India, developers of the Simputer, a “low-cost portable alternative to PCs,” are launching their product designed to bridge the technology gap for the nation’s poor.

But its developers had a hard time finding startup capital.

Computer manufacturers refused to fund the project because it isn’t a high-profit venture, even though providing affordable Internet access to the masses is a crucial developmental step for the impoverished country. Right now less than 1 percent of Indians own a computer, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation.

After the machine spent three years languishing in the development stage, the government-owned firm Bahrat Electronics has signed on to produce the Simputer. A basic model runs about $240.

The device, created by Indian scientists, will be the first computer manufactured in India. This news warms my little socialist heart — but not for the same reasons free-market advocates are rejoicing.

For me, this example illustrates the all-too-obvious truth that the private sector just isn’t interested in social development. If there had been no government-owned company in India to manufacture the Simputer, no one would have bankrolled this less-profitable — but socially significant — innovation.

That’s why we need strong government regulations and entities: to keep the private sector in check and to look out for the little guy.

Admittedly, governments don’t always concern themselves with the greater good either, but authentic, transparent democracies and benevolent autocracies do.

It’s a political food chain: We need nonprofit organizations to monitor the government, and watchdog groups must oversee the nonprofits.

And supervising everything is the supreme authority: the people.

This is what democracy looks like, and it’s been a long, hard road to get here.

During industrialization in the late 19th century, factory injuries and deaths caused a public outcry for safety regulations and fair labor laws. And the same factors that contributed to the progressive movement then — long work hours, crappy pay, businesses’ unholy alliance with government, concentrated wealth — can be seen in today’s society.

So it should come as no surprise that we are seeing a revival of muckraking journalists, idealistic intellectuals and working-class revolutionaries, fighting for the same type of reforms needed back then.

Fortunately, our political system, flawed as it is, offers us many opportunities to make a difference. We can join civic organizations, hold protest demonstrations and write letters to our legislators. Most importantly, we can vote. This is how we exercise our authority.

But what many don’t understand is that we yield a similar power over the private sector. Like withholding our votes from a politician, we can withhold our dollars from the companies we don’t like.

Communism errs in that it expects its adherents to always be self-sacrificing, while capitalism errs in that it expects its subjects to always be self-serving. In reality, we are both consumers and citizens, motivated by myriad factors that overly simplistic market theories and sentimental slogans cannot predict or manipulate.

Economists’ neat little equations are truly adorable, but less tidy are the slum dwellings of Mexico City, malnutrition in Appalachia and drug abuse in Asia.

We tell other countries, “Look how well our free-market system works! Just don’t wander too far from your luxury hotel at night.”

We the people created this economic and political system, and it’s up to us to reform it — by restoring faith and power in our representative government — or to destroy it entirely.

Lindsey Mckay, The Post, Ohio University.