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.
The president addressed the quadrennial gathering like a campaign rally—talking to a group devoted to service as if it valued self-interest.
Donald Trump continued his ongoing tour of cherished American institutions on Monday night, delivering yet another jarringly partisan speech to an apolitical audience—this one, comprising tens of thousands still too young to vote.
During the campaign, his performance at the Al Smith dinner—where presidential candidates roast their rivals and themselves every four years—devolved into overt attacks on his opponent. Shortly after his election, he stunned CIA employees by delivering a campaign-style stump speech before the agency’s Memorial Wall. On Saturday, he surprised the crowd of uniformed personnel at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford by imploring them to lobby Congress in support of his agenda.
Partly, it’s simple rage. Mueller threatens Trump. And when Trump sees someone as a threat, he tries to discredit and destroy them—conventional norms of propriety, decency and legality be damned.
But there’s another, more calculated, reason. Trump and his advisors may genuinely believe that firing Mueller is a smart move. And if you put morality aside, and see the question in nakedly political terms, they may be right.
The chances that Mueller will uncover something damning seem very high. Trump has already admitted to firing former FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation. Donald Trump Jr. has already admitted to welcoming the opportunity to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from people he believed were representatives of the Russian government. Even if Mueller doesn’t accuse anyone of a crime, he’s likely to paint a brutal picture. And that’s just on the question of election collusion and obstruction of justice. If Mueller uses Russia to segue into Trump’s business dealings, who knows what he might find. An all-star team of legal and financial sleuths, with unlimited time and money, and the ability to subpoena documents and people, have been let loose on the affairs of a man whose own autobiographer called him a “sociopath.” No wonder Trump is scared.
The internet’s favorite fact-checkers are caught in a messy dispute.
On Monday, the editorial staff of Snopes.com wrote a short plea for help. The post said that the site needed money to fund its operations because another company that Snopes had contracted with “continues to essentially hold the Snopes.com web site hostage.”
“Our legal team is fighting hard for us, but, having been cut off from all revenue, we are facing the prospect of having no financial means to continue operating the site and paying our staff (not to mention covering our legal fees) in the meanwhile,” the note continued.
It was a shocking message from a website that’s been around for more than 20 years—and that’s become a vital part of internet infrastructure in the #fakenews era. The site’s readers have responded. Already, more than $92,000 has been donated to a GoFundMe with a goal of $500,000.
Thirty-one-year-old Ezra Cohen-Watnick holds the intelligence portfolio on the National Security Council—but almost everything about him is a mystery.
Just 24 days into his tenure as Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, Michael Flynn was forced to resign, having reportedly misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials. When Flynn departed, the men and women he’d appointed to the National Security Council grew nervous about their own jobs, and with good reason. The new national-security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, promptly began clearing out Flynn’s people, among them Dave Cattler, the deputy assistant to the president for regional affairs, Adam Lovinger, a strategic affairs analyst on loan from the Pentagon, and KT McFarland, Flynn’s deputy, who was eased out with the ambassadorship to Singapore. Even Steve Bannon, among the most powerful people in the White House, was removed from the meetings of the NSC Principal’s Committee, where he had been installed early on in the administration.
Half a century ago, a senator battling a brain tumor took to the Senate floor, and secured his legacy.
None of us can choose how we are remembered. Most of us are not remembered at all. Senator John McCain knows that he will be remembered. He faces a choice about how his remarkable career will be noted in its autumnal phase.
McCain will of course be remembered most of all for his service, and sacrifice and bravery, as a naval aviator and then as prisoner of war in Vietnam. He should also be known for his efforts in his early days in politics to heal divisions within the United States over the Vietnam war, and then between Vietnam and the United States.
In the world of politics he is known and will probably be remembered as a steadfast personal friend, despite disagreements of party. Michael Lewis’s remarkable tale of McCain’s loyalty to the disabled and mostly forgotten one-time liberal champion Morris Udall is, well, an unforgettable example. More than most politicians, McCain has had dramatic moments of principle-above-party high-road stands, as when he told a Republican questioner that she should stop suggesting that his then-opponent for the presidency, Barack Obama, was “an Arab.” As Colin Powell later pointed out, McCain’s response fell an inch short of perfection, in that he answered the questioner by saying that Obama wasn’t “an Arab—he’s a decent family man.” Still, in real time and near the end of a bitter campaign it was brave, right, to his credit—and in character.
There were numerous attempts to establish contact with the campaign and the transition team.
In trying to fend off suspicion of collusion with the Kremlin, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner have recently provided the public with two very interesting documents. Shoving responsibility for any outreach onto the Russian side, the two men have given us with a partial account of Russian methods in approaching the Trump camp in 2016.
If the accounts are true—and, given that their accounts have changed in the past, these latest accounts could change too—then, taken together, the Trump Jr. emails and Kushner’s statement show a Russian side that is experimenting with ways of getting the Trump team’s attention. They show a side that really is, as one former Obama administration official told me, “throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what would stick.”
Terminating the special counsel would show recklessness, imply corruption, and irrevocably damage the country.
Last week, President Donald Trump fueled speculation that he might work to oust Robert Mueller, the former FBI director appointed to probe Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump could do so today, or tomorrow, or three months from now; the news could be announced in a televised speech, through a spokesperson, or even in a late night tweet sent on an impulse after his advisers have gone to bed.
If Trump fires Robert Mueller, few will be surprised. But if that happens, as the Department of Justice is thrown into chaos, as the American public sees its clearly expressed support for the special counsel disregarded, as the vital inquiry into the integrity of American elections stalls, as protesters take to the streets in a show of outrage at the affront to the rule of law, as the 2018 midterms morph into a referendum on the administration, and as American democracy reels into unknown territory, the House of Representatives should immediately impeach the president.
A crucial Senate vote to begin the health-care debate is set for Tuesday, but it could fail.
Updated on July 25 at 9:38 a.m. ET
Senate Republicans on Tuesday will begin debating legislation to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, making good on the party’s most enduring campaign promise of the last seven years.
Or maybe they won’t.
The Senate’s next move on health carehas been cloaked in mystery over the last several days, as President Trump and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell try to clear a crucial procedural vote while preparing for the increasing possibility that it will fail.
McConnell is determined to call up legislation the House passed in May to replace Obamacare as a means of starting formal debate in the upper chamber. But the Senate wouldn’t ultimately be voting on the House bill. Instead, McConnell would immediately move to substitute the House bill with a different proposal—either the bill he drafted to partially repeal and replace Obamacare, or a copy of legislation Republicans advanced in 2015 that repeals but does not replace the health law.
As Donald Trump’s troubles deepen, he keeps trying to shift attention to his old rival—but finds it no longer works like it used to.
Donald Trump’s brand-new communications director got a glimpse of the challenge he faces this weekend. As Anthony Scaramucci toured the Sunday shows, promising a new era of better relations and positive vibes, his boss was firing off his most active string of Twitter complaints in some time, taking shots at Democrats, Republicans, the press, James Comey, Robert Mueller, and—for the second time in less than a week—his own attorney general:
So why aren't the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?
The president’s choice of words to describe Attorney General Jeff Sessions is bizarre, though the condescending mockery matches the tone he often uses for adversaries. To paraphrase Trump, somebody’s doing the beleaguering, and that person is Trump himself, who railed at Sessions during an interview with The New York Times last week, saying he wished he hadn’t appointed him, and that Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation was unfair to Trump.
A study suggests time-saving services like meal delivery and housekeepers boost life satisfaction—for the purchaser, of course.
Recently, my boyfriend and I grew tired of 9 p.m. dinner fights and pizza orders, so we signed up for Blue Apron. Now, our fridge is filled with individually wrapped celery stalks and 1-ounce packets of aioli, ready to be transformed, cooking-show style, into an edible meal—even after a 14-hour workday.
We live in the suburbs, so when I have an after-work event, I hail whichever car-sharing service had fewer labor abuses that week and try not to ever mention it to my Marxist father.
And a month ago, after realizing I would need approximately 900 shift dresses to fulfill my moderating duties at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I tried a service that shops for you. I had to return all but an overpriced blouse, but at least I didn’t have to leave the house, look at it, or even click on anything first.