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.
As he prepares for a presidential run, the governor’s labor legacy deserves inspection. Are his state’s “hardworking taxpayers” any better off?
This past February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, D.C., Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rolled up his sleeves, clipped on a lavalier microphone, and without the aid of a teleprompter gave the speech of his life. He emerged from that early GOP cattle call as a front-runner for his party’s nomination for president. Numerous polls this spring placed him several points ahead of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the preferred candidate of the Republican establishment, in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those same polls showed him with an even more substantial lead over movement conservative favorites such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee. In late April, the Koch brothers hinted that Walker would be the likely recipient of the nearly $900 million they plan to spend on the 2016 election cycle.
It wasn’t that bad. But it did help me understand why it made people so angry.
From the Gray Lady, a Modest Dip Proposal. On Microblogging Platform, a Furor. For Peas, a New Use. There are times when The Times out-Timeses itself, and then there was Wednesday. The country's largest newspaper smugly tweeted a link to a recipe for guacamole. One made with peas. "Trust us," it read.
The Republican hopeful’s comments about Hispanics have been disastrous for his brand and reputation, which he values at an outlandish $3.3 billion.
Donald Trump’s run for the presidency is premised on one fact above all: He’s a fabulously successful businessman. And yet, paradoxically, running for president may be the most disastrous business decision he’s made—or, at the very least, his worst in a while.
The trouble started with Trump’s rambling announcement speech on June 16. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best,” Trump said of immigrants to the United States. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”
I spent a year in Tromsø, Norway, where the “Polar Night” lasts all winter—and where rates of seasonal depression are remarkably low. Here’s what I learned about happiness and the wintertime blues.
Located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø, Norway, is home to extreme light variation between seasons. During the Polar Night, which lasts from November to January, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Then the days get progressively longer until the Midnight Sun period, from May to July, when it never sets. After the midnight sun, the days get shorter and shorter again until the Polar Night, and the yearly cycle repeats.
So, perhaps understandably, many people had a hard time relating when I told them I was moving there.
“I could never live there,” was the most common response I heard. “That winter would make me so depressed,” many added, or “I just get so tired when it’s dark out.”
But the Polar Night was what drew me to Tromsø in the first place.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
This Independence Day, we should take a page from the Founding Fathers, as well as our ancestors around the world, who imbibed gallons of low-alcohol beer pretty much all the time.
“Beer,” writes the Egyptologist Wolfgang Helck, “could easily have been discovered by chance.” The Babylonians and ancient Egyptians didn’t have microbrewing supplies, but they had grains—grains that would, from time to time, get wet, interact with airborne yeasts, and voila, a brewski was born.
That’s according to Ian Spencer Hornsey, who describes in his book, A History of Beer and Brewing, the long, global history of fermented beverages.
Today, most beer is made either by multinational conglomerates or careful artisans, but originally, all men were (rather careless) home-brewers. The Babylonians would mix crumbled bread with water, add yeast, and just forget about it for a while. One of the Sumerians’ few female deities was Ninkasi, “Lady of the inebriating fruit,” who watched over the “cooked mash” as it cooled.
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.
The untold story of the improbable campaign that finally tipped the U.S. Supreme Court.
On May 18, 1970, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell walked into a courthouse in Minneapolis, paid $10, and applied for a marriage license. The county clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused to give it to them. Obviously, he told them, marriage was for people of the opposite sex; it was silly to think otherwise.
Baker, a law student, didn’t agree. He and McConnell, a librarian, had met at a Halloween party in Oklahoma in 1966, shortly after Baker was pushed out of the Air Force for his sexuality. From the beginning, the men were committed to one another. In 1967, Baker proposed that they move in together. McConnell replied that he wanted to get married—really, legally married. The idea struck even Baker as odd at first, but he promised to find a way and decided to go to law school to figure it out.
Was the Concorde a triumph of modern engineering, a metaphor for misplaced 20th-century values, or both?
The box sat untouched in his bottom desk drawer. For weeks we discussed opening it, and one January morning he was ready. I set the box on his white bedsheets and removed the stack of passports, which could have belonged to a family with dual citizenship. But all nine—from 1956 to a valid update issued in 2014—belong to my 89-year-old grandfather.
Lying in bed, he unfolded a stamp-covered page like an accordion and held it open above his chest. “Oh my,” he kept repeating. He paused, and pointed.
London. March 22, 1976. My then-50-year-old grandfather, Raymond Pearlson, the inventor ofSyncrolift, was traveling the world selling his shiplift system. Concorde had launched commercially that January. He knew exactly what this stamp represented: Washington Dulles to London Heathrow in 3.5 hours—the first of at least 150 supersonic flights he took on the legendary aircraft.
Fifty years later, new accounts of its fraught passage reveal the era's real hero—and it isn’t the Supreme Court.
In the winter of 1963, as the Civil Rights Act worked its way through Congress, Justice William Brennan decided to play for time. The Supreme Court had recently heard arguments in the appeal of 12 African American protesters arrested at a segregated Baltimore restaurant. The justices had caucused, and a conservative majority had voted to decide Bell v. Maryland by reiterating that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause did not apply to private businesses like restaurants and lunch counters—only to “state actors.” The Court had used this doctrine to limit the reach of the Fourteenth Amendment since 1883. Brennan—the Warren Court’s liberal deal maker and master strategist—knew that such a decision could destroy the civil-rights bill’s chances in Congress. After all, the bill’s key provision outlawed segregation in public accommodations. Taxing his opponents’ patience, he sought a delay in order to request the government’s views on the case. He all but winked and told the solicitor general not to hurry.