Early cost estimates of government projects tend to be optimistic, but does that mean an ambitious project should be scrapped when its price increases?
The Washington Post reports on the political storm surrounding continued funding of the Webb Space Telescope, our planned next-generation instrument:
In 2006, NASA estimated that Webb would cost $2.4 billion and could launch in 2014. In 2008, the price tag rose to $5.1 billion. A congressionally mandated report released last year found that NASA had underestimated costs and mismanaged the project. This summer, NASA said it had already spent $3.5 billion on the project and needed a total of $8.7 billion to launch in 2018.
Against critics who say the gap has been growing and the project should be shut down,
[Edward J.] Weiler [retired head of NASA space sciences] said estimating costs on a project that's never been built before is difficult. "You bid optimistically. That's not just a problem with the James Webb Space Telescope. We see it at NASA all the time; you see it at defense contractors. I would argue -- and I'm not making excuses here -- that [the budget overrun] is a product of the way we do business in America."
Top astronomers said early estimates were never realistic.
"People were used to lowballing," said Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "Congress has been part of the game."
The much-acclaimed Hubble Space Telescope, Weiler reminded critics, was also way over budget. And that very point is reflected in the new book by the Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, in the chapter dealing with what he and his colleague Amos Tversky called the Planning Fallacy: using best-case scenarios and not reflecting actual costs of similar projects. Poster child: the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, originally budgeted in 1997 at £40 million and finished only in 2004 at a cost of £431 million.
But would we always be better off by following Dr. Kahneman's wise counsel? Shouldn't we look the future squarely in the eye and not fool ourselves about costs? Mark Twain, who virtually bankrupted himself backing an ultimately unworkable typesetter, might have agreed.(Or maybe not; he kept backing esoteric projects like a Polish-Austrian inventor's carpet-pattern machine.) But Dr. Illingworth's remarks suggest there's something else at work, a tacit agreement to keep original estimates deliberately low. Regarding the Scottish Parliament and other architectural megaprojects, the Danish-born program management guru Bent Flyvbjerg believes such enterprises are more often than not Machiavellian charades.Of course that leaves open the question of whether some notorious cases like the Sydney Opera House may turn out to have been worth the deception or self-deception, while others like New Jersey's Xanadu have at least so far been mere money pits.
Scientific instruments are different from monuments; even ardent Scottish nationalists might not claim that the new building will give their country better laws, while the Webb instrument, like the Hubble, might change our view of the universe and our place in it, and yield the surprising economic benefits that expensive pure science (and some military cost overruns) often do. The question is whether the benefit of greater realism in the majority of cases would be offset by the loss of benefits if legislators ruled out all projects that by Kahneman's criteria were likely to produce substantial cost overruns. Sometimes coping with unexpected difficulties produces surprising new solutions, a phenomenon that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand.
Fiscal realism can also have unintended consequences. Cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, it has often been observed, helped drive legions of physicists from big science to even bigger finance, where they developed the computer infrastructure behind the trading that is now the target of Occupy Wall Street. The NASA executive Dr. Charles Beichman wrote tongue-in-cheek to the Financial Times two years ago that it's cheaper to pay scientists and engineers to work on accelerators and telescopes than to turn them loose writing derivatives.
So, on balance I would suggest implementing Dr. Kahneman's procedure, but (in the case of potentially productive investments) looking not just at all the potential additional costs but at the kinds of benefits, including spinoffs, that previous big projects have created. I find it hard to believe that in the context of the whole Federal budget, the Web Space Telescope would not survive that kind of realism.
Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
Footnotes. Numbers. Detailed proposals. The Donald’s economic address at an aluminum factory in Pennsylvania had it all.
Donald Trump must have hired some researchers.
The famously off-the-cuff orator delivered a surprisingly specific speech on trade, making seven detailed policy pledges while predicting that Hillary Clinton, if elected, would tweak and then sign the enormous Pacific trade pact she now opposes as a candidate for president.
Trump’s address to workers at a Pennsylvania aluminum factory continued his recent effort to lift both the tone and substance of his speeches. But it marked an even bigger departure in its sheer wonkiness.First, his campaign sent out the prepared remarks with 128 footnotes. And in delivering the speech from a teleprompter, Trump delved into such granular policy detail that he referenced specific sections of decades-old trade laws and vowed to invoke “Article 2205” of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Doing so, he said, would withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA if its trading partners don’t agree to renegotiate the Clinton-era accord.
Their degrees may help them secure entry-level jobs, but to advance in their careers, they’ll need much more than technical skills.
American undergraduates are flocking to business programs, and finding plenty of entry-level opportunities. But when businesses go hunting for CEOs or managers, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad,” said Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.
That presents a growing challenge to colleges and universities. Students are clamoring for degrees that will help them secure jobs in a shifting economy, but to succeed in the long term, they’ll require an education that allows them to grow, adapt, and contribute as citizens—and to build successful careers. And it’s why many schools are shaking up their curricula to ensure that undergraduate business majors receive something they may not even know they need—a rigorous liberal-arts education.
Fears of civilization-wide idleness are based too much on the downsides of being unemployed in a society premised on the concept of employment.
People have speculated for centuries about a future without work, and today is no different, with academics, writers, and activists once again warning that technology is replacing human workers. Some imagine that the coming work-free world will be defined by inequality: A few wealthy people will own all the capital, and the masses will struggle in an impoverished wasteland.
A different, less paranoid, and not mutually exclusive prediction holds that the future will be a wasteland of a different sort, one characterized by purposelessness: Without jobs to give their lives meaning, people will simply become lazy and depressed. Indeed, today’s unemployed don’t seem to be having a great time. One Gallup poll found that 20 percent of Americans who have been unemployed for at least a year report having depression, double the rate for working Americans. Also, some research suggests that the explanation for rising rates of mortality, mental-health problems, and addiction among poorly-educated, middle-aged people is a shortage of well-paid jobs. Another study shows that people are often happier at work than in their free time. Perhaps this is why many worry about the agonizing dullness of a jobless future.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
It’s the cloudless map’s first major makeover since 2013.
More than 1 billion people use Google Maps every month, making it possibly the most popular atlas ever created. On Monday, it gets a makeover, and its many users will see something different when they examine the planet’s forests, fields, seas, and cities.
Google has added 700 trillion pixels of new data to its service. The new map, which activates this week for all users of Google Maps and Google Earth, consists of orbital imagery that is newer, more detailed, and of higher contrast than the previous version.
Most importantly, this new map contains fewer clouds than before—only the second time Google has unveiled a “cloudless” map. Google had not updated its low- and medium-resolution satellite map in three years.
At least 36 people were killed in an attack Tuesday at Ataturk airport, one of the busiest in Europe.
Here’s what we know:
—Explosions and gunfire were reported Tuesday night at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, one of the busiest in Europe. Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said three attackers opened fire at the airport’s international terminal and detonated explosives, blowing themselves up. Officials suspect the Islamic State was behind the attack.
—At least 36 people were killed and 147 wounded, the prime minister said. Photos from the scene showed bloodied bodies and debris on the pavement outside the terminal.
—We’re live-blogging what’s happening, and you can read how it unfolded below. All updates are in Eastern Standard Time (GMT -5).
Witnesses described the attack and the chaos that followed to reporters in Istanbul. From the AP:
The 18th-century ailment was on the brink of elimination before budget cuts helped resurrect it.
In recent months, newspapers around the country have published stories that sound like they could have been written 100 years ago. Indiana’s syphilis cases skyrocketed by 70 percent in a single year. Texas’ Lubbock county was under a “syphilis alert.” Various counties face shortages of the medication used to treat syphilitic pregnant women.
But the headlines are very much modern—and urgent. Syphilis is back, public-health experts say.
For many years, syphilis was considered a practically ancient ailment—a “Great Pox” that, like tuberculosis or polio, Americans just don’t get anymore. There were just 6,000 cases of primary and secondary syphilis in 2000, and the CDC briefly thought the disease’s total elimination was within reach.
House Republicans released a lengthy report on Tuesday detailing how events unfolded and criticizing the government’s response to them.
After a two-year investigation that cost $7 million, one of the most politically contentious chapters of Hillary Clinton’s career came to a close on Tuesday. House Republicans released their long-awaited reporton the 2012 Benghazi terror attacks that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Clinton was the secretary of state at the time. As a result, the investigation into the attack has been politically charged: It coincided with an election year in which Clinton is now the presumptive Democratic nominee. House Republicans, however, have repeatedly denounced accusations that the investigation was a political ploy. On Tuesday, they continued to do so, highlighting their efforts to make sense of the government’s response to the attacks.
The way members of the ‘model minority’ are treated in elite-college admissions could affect race-based standards moving forward.
In his new book, Earning Admission: Real Strategies for Getting Into Highly Selective Colleges, the strategist Greg Kaplan urges Asians not to identify as such on their applications. “Your child should decline to state her background if she identifies with a group that is overrepresented on campus even if her name suggests affiliation,” he advises parents, also referencing Jews. Such tips are increasingly common in the college-advising world; it’s not unusual for consultants, according to The Boston Globe, to urge students to “deemphasize the Asianness” in their resumes or avoid writing application essays about their immigrant parents “coming from Vietnam with $2 in a rickety boat and swimming away from sharks.”