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.
Why Nixon's former lawyer John Dean worries Trump could be one of the most corrupt presidents ever—and get away with it
Sometime early last fall, John Dean says he began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
Can Republicans repeal Obamacare without imposing the greatest costs on the older, white, blue-collar voters who put Trump into office?
As congressional Republicans race to repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, one of their principal challenges is finding an alternative that does not expose older and less affluent white voters at the core of Donald Trump’s electoral coalition to greater costs and financial risk.
The paradox of the health-reform debate is that many of Obamacare’s key elements raised costs on younger and healthier people who generally vote Democratic as a means of limiting the financial exposure of older and sicker people, even as older whites have stampeded toward the GOP. Conversely, many of the central ideas common to the Republican replacement plans would lower costs for younger and healthier adults while exposing people with greater health needs, many of them older, to the risk of much larger out-of-pocket costs, even if it reduces the health-insurance premiums they initially pay.
After an unexpected loss in November, Democrats are nowhere near ready to take on the president-elect.
For Democrats and other progressive types, Winter Is Coming. Scratch that. Winter has hit—full force—and hordes of White Walkers are now wilding across the land.
It’s not merely that the party’s presidential dreams were crushed. Defeat came at the hands of a chest-thumping reality-TV star with the attention span of a toddler on speed to whom the norms of civilized society, much less politics, don’t seem to apply. Donald Trump’s jerkiness is central to his appeal, and for whatever cocktail of reasons—fear, awe, confusion—even many of the guy’s detractors find him hard to resist.
How the heck is non-Trump America supposed to forge an effective opposition to such a character, especially when his political team controls all the levers of power?
Is there room in the movement for people who morally object to abortion?
Updated on Monday, January 16 at 4:05 p.m.
Pro-life women are headed to D.C. Yes, they’ll turn out for the annual March for Life, which is coming up on January 27. But one week earlier, as many as a few hundred pro-lifers are planning to attend the Women’s March on Washington, which has been billed as feminist counterprogramming to the inauguration.
With organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America co-sponsoring the event, pro-life marchers have found themselves in a somewhat awkward position. What’s their place at an event that claims to speak for all women, but has aligned itself with pro-choice groups? With roughly a week to go before the march, organizers also released a set of “unity principles,” and one of them is “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people.”
Why some people are withdrawing from mainstream society into “intentional communities”—and what the rest of the country can learn from them
VIRGINIA— For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
When it comes to basic policy questions such as the minimum wage, introductory economics can be more misleading than it is helpful.
In a rich, post-industrial society, where most people walk around with supercomputers in their pockets and a person can have virtually anything delivered to his or her doorstep overnight, it seems wrong that people who work should have to live in poverty. Yet in America, there are more than ten million members of the working poor: people in the workforce whose household income is below the poverty line. Looking around, it isn’t hard to understand why. The two most common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson and cashier. Eight million people have one of those two jobs, which typically pay about $9–$10 per hour. It’s hard to make ends meet on such meager wages. A few years ago, McDonald’s was embarrassed by the revelation that its internal help line was recommending that even a full-time restaurant employee apply for various forms of public assistance.
“Trump’s wall is already under construction,” Wole Soyinka says. “Walls are built in the mind.”
Wole Soyinka, the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, once fled to the United States from Nigeria. Now the fickle winds of politics are pushing him in the opposite direction.
Back in the 1960s, jailed for alleged associations with rebels amid the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, Soyinka composed protest poems on toilet paper in solitary confinement. “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny,” Soyinka wrote in the collection of prison notes he later published. In the 1990s, the Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha confiscated Soyinka’s passport after the playwright urged Nigerians to stop paying taxes in defiance of military rule in the country. Soyinka managed to sneak out of his homeland and take refuge in the United States—a period he described to me as his “political sabbatical, because I never accepted, really, that I was in exile.”Abacha sentenced Soyinka to death in absentia. Soyinka’s crime was said to be treason.
Surfing the app on a trip back home can be a way of regressing, or imagining what life would be like if you never left.
My parents moved out of my hometown almost as soon as I left for college, and therefore I am obsessed with the idea of other people’s hometowns. Over any major holiday or break from a work schedule, hometowns become a sort of time travel, a way for people who have made adult lives elsewhere to return to their origin story.
Going home for the holidays can act as a kind of regression. Most of us know people, whether our friends, our partner, even our own parents, who suddenly turn into their teen or pre-teen self once they step foot in the house where they grew up. My mom used to say that whenever my dad got within 50 miles of his mom’s house, he suddenly became a teenage boy. Our hometowns become a kind of permission and hideaway, a place where we don’t have to be ourselves, where our actions don’t count and we get to be briefly less visible than we are in the adult homes we’ve made for ourselves elsewhere, the places where we expect ourselves to take action and achieve things and move upward through each day. For many of us, hometowns allow the luxury of a brief period of stasis, a rare few days of doing nothing.
The pundit was forced to decline a White House appointment after revelations that a book and a dissertation were rife with plagiarized passages.
There are few pithier ways to broach the strange story of the rise and fall of Monica Crowley’s career in the White House than the title of her 2012 book, What the (Bleep) Just Happened?
Here is what the bleep just happened: Crowley was busted for plagiarizing, from a variety of sources, in dozens of cases in that book. A few days later, she was busted for plagiarizing in her 2000 Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University. A few days after that, CNN’s KFile, which found the original thefts, revealed that the dissertation pilfering was even more extensive. And on Monday, Crowley announced she would not take a job on the National Security Council in the Trump administration.