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.
Boosting your ego won’t make you feel better. Instead, try talking to yourself like you would your best friend.
In 1986, California state assemblyman John Vasconcellos came up with what he believed could be “a vaccine for major social ills” like teen pregnancy and drug abuse: a special task-force to promote self-esteem among Californians. The effort folded three years later, and was widely considered not to have accomplished much.
To Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, that’s not surprising. Though self-esteem continues to reverberate as a pop-psych cure-all, the quest for inflated egos, in her view, is misguided and largely pointless.
There’s nothing wrong with being confident, to answer Demi Lovato’s question. The trouble is how we try to achieve high self-regard. Often, it’s by undermining others or comparing our achievements to those around us. That’s not just unsustainable, Neff argues, it can also lead to narcissism or depressive bouts during hard times.
Now that the entertainer seems to have wrapped up the Republican nomination, who will he choose as his running mate?
For decades, a few antiquated bon mots about the vice presidency have held sway in discussions about running mates. For example, there’s Teddy Roosevelt’s declaration, “I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than vice president.” Even better was John Nance Garner’s verdict that the office he held under FDR was “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” Those quips really hardly apply anymore; they’re as archaic as their authors. These days the Naval Observatory is a nice place to land. You could end up amassing unprecedented power and a man-sized safe, like Dick Cheney. You could end up with impressive power andbecome an aviator-clad folk hero, like Joe Biden.
Or maybe not. Will anyone want to be the running mate to presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump? There are the character risks in cozying up to a man who’s liable to make a racist comment or accuse a rival’s father of being involved in the Kennedy assassination. There are the career risks of becoming associated with a man who much of the Republican Party still doesn’t like. And there are the organizational risks to signing on as No. 2 to a man who’s famously a go-it-alone maverick.
Who has jumped on the bandwagon? Who’s sticking with #NeverTrump? And who hasn’t made up their mind yet? A continually updated inventory
How do you solve a problem like The Donald? For Republicans and conservatives, the time for hoping Trump would simply burn himself out, collapse, and go away is over. With the exits of Ted Cruz and John Kasich, the entertainer is now the presumptive GOP nominee.
That poses a dilemma for the Republican official or conservative opinionmaker who doesn’t like Trump, disagrees with his policies, and/or thinks he will harm GOP and the conservative movement. Swallow hard and back Trump? Try to coalesce around a third-party candidate? Sit out the election and risk allowing Hillary Clinton to win the presidency, or even back her rather than risk letting Trump win?
As the chaotic and failed attempts to stop Trump over the 10 months have shown, there’s no obviously right choice. But which choice are people making? Here’s a list of some major figures and where they stand on Trump—right now. We’ll keep it updated as other important people take stances, or as these ones change their views about Trump.
With Donald Trump its presumptive nominee after his win in the Indiana primary, the GOP will never be the same.
NEW YORK—Where were you the night Donald Trump killed the Republican Party as we knew it? Trump was right where he belonged: in the gilt-draped skyscraper with his name on it, Trump Tower in Manhattan, basking in the glory of his final, definitive victory.
“I have to tell you, I’ve competed all my life,” Trump said, his golden face somber, his gravity-defying pouf of hair seeming to hover above his brow. “All my life I’ve been in different competitions—in sports, or in business, or now, for 10 months, in politics. I have met some of the most incredible competitors that I’ve ever competed against right here in the Republican Party.”
The combined might of the Republican Party’s best and brightest—16 of them at the outset—proved, in the end, helpless against Trump’s unorthodox, muscular appeal to the party’s voting base. With his sweeping, 16-point victory in Tuesday’s Indiana primary, and the surrender of his major remaining rival, Ted Cruz, Trump was pronounced the presumptive nominee by the chair of the Republican National Committee. The primary was over—but for the GOP, the reckoning was only beginning.
The candidate has exposed the tension between democracy and liberal values—just like the Arab Spring did.
When I was living in the Middle East, politics always felt existential, in a way that I suppose I could never fully understand. After all, I could always leave (as my relatives in Egypt were fond of reminding me). But it was easy enough to sense it. Here, in the era of Arab revolt, elections really had consequences. Politics wasn’t about policy; it was about a battle over the very meaning and purpose of the nation-state. These were the things that mattered more than anything else, in part because they were impossible to measure or quantify.
The primary divide in most Arab countries was between Islamists and non-Islamists. The latter, especially those of a more secular bent, feared that Islamist rule, however “democratic” it might be, would alter the nature of their countries beyond recognition. It wouldn’t just affect their governments or their laws, but how they lived, what they wore, and how they raised their sons and daughters.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
The Good Wife, which ends its seven-season run on Sunday, made use of its costumes in a way few shows have—giving them things to say about feminism and class and the complex interplay between the two.
The Good Wife begins with a pair of suits. Two people, a man and a woman, walk down a long hallway, each clad in that classic costume of conformity. The woman’s suit is gray-and-black wool houndstooth, slightly boxy in cut, clasped with mother-of-pearl buttons; the man’s is black, with just a hint of white sleeve peeking out from under the arm. The faces in that first scene remain just out of frame; the suits’ fabrics swish and bunch, their folds and shadows exaggerated by the harsh lighting of a cavernous hall.
Quickly, we learn that the faceless couple is Alicia and Peter Florrick, and that they’re on their way to the press conference in which he will announce his resignation as Cook County’s State’s Attorney, confess his repeated infidelity to his wife, and otherwise engage in the time-honored yet quintessentially modern ritual of the performative political apology. Alicia will stand beside him while he does all that, stoic and sad and exhausted, the rigidity of her pencil skirt and woolen jacket seeming to help her stay upright as the callous cameras flash. And then, abruptly, in the next scene—six months after the first one, the show informs us—we see her again. She is no longer pale. She is wearing a pantsuit instead of a skirt, and a jacket that is, unlike the first, perfectly tailored to her form. She is wearing stilettos. Actually, she is running in them.
All week long, raging wildfires have swept across neighborhoods and forests of the city of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada.
All week long, raging wildfires have swept across neighborhoods and forests of the city of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, forcing more than 80,000 people to flee. The fire, driven by strong winds and hot, dry weather, is estimated to have burned more than 250,000 acres so far, destroying nearly 2,000 buildings, and will likely be one of Canada’s most expensive disasters, with insurance claims estimated to top $9 billion. Fortunately, there have been no casualties reported from the fire so far.
Some of Hillary Clinton’s top aides have been interviewed by the FBI, and so far there’s reportedly no evidence she broke the law—but she hasn’t spoken to investigators yet.
Back in early March, The New York Times reported that the FBI would be interviewing Hillary Clinton and her top aides about her private email server within the coming weeks. A source told the paper the investigation would probably conclude by early May, at which point the Justice Department would be left to decide whether to file charges against Clinton or anyone else, and what charges to file. The final decision rests with Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Then things went quiet for a while. On Monday—fully two months after the Times report—Clinton even told Andrea Mitchell that the FBI hadn’t contacted her for an interview about the server. What gives?
The email-server story seems to move in waves: silence for a while, then an onslaught of news. Late Thursday, it emerged that while Clinton hasn’t spoken to the FBI yet, several of her top aides have. (She has repeatedly said that she will cooperate if asked to speak.) One of the aides to speak is Huma Abedin, one of Clinton’s closest and longest-serving confidants. It’s not clear what other staffers have been interviewed.
The Nebraska senator wrote a widely discussed open letter condemning Clinton and Trump. The spirit is right, but the substance is thin.
Kudos to Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse for reaffirming in a widely discussed “open letter” that he won’t support Donald Trump. I just wish the letter weren’t so self-righteously dumb.
Sasse, often mentioned as a potential third-party candidate, addresses his missive to the “majority of America” that believes that “both leading presidential candidates are dishonest.” He goes onto declare that neither Trump nor Hillary are “honorable people” nor “healthy leader[s],” whatever that means.
That’s an ironic way to begin a letter that later denounces “character attacks.” It’s true that many voters doubt Clinton’s trustworthiness. But Sasse offers no evidence that Clinton has been particularly dishonest in this campaign and the nonpartisan institutions that evaluate politicians’ veracity suggest the opposite. The fact-checking website Politifact rates 49 percent of Clinton’s statements “true” and 29 percent “false.” That’s substantially better than Marco Rubio (36 percent true, 42 percent false) and Ted Cruz (25 percent true, 64 percent false), neither of whom Sasse would call dishonest, let alone dishonorable or unhealthy. And it’s in a different solar system from Donald Trump, whose ratio as judged by Politifact is a mind-boggling 9 percent true to 76 percent false.