Mistakes Were Made

The shuttle’s coming back tomorrow or Tuesday, depending on weather, if they have no other problems. Let’s pray that they don’t. After it returns, who knows? Best case scenario, NASA spends a few more millions, fixes the foam problem more successfully, the shuttle flies again until its next serious problem.

I stand behind no one in my enthusiasm for space flight. I’d much rather federal money go to unmanned space exploration and even manned space exploration than many other government programs, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the sheer pleasure it provides earthbound humans.

But let’s face it: the shuttle program by any standard is a gigantic disaster. A mistake. The space station is an even bigger one: it’s pointless in the extreme. It can’t even serve as a meaningful preparation for more ambitious human activities in space in its current form. It exists at this point because it has attracted a sufficient client base that making it not exist would require expending considerable political capital.

There are a lot of institutional programs like that. It’s not just a “government” thing. Companies do it, universities do it, any human organization does it. A program gets started with the best of intentions, or as an attempt to politically manage an earlier era of controversy and conflict. The program creates its own political base in short order. Getting rid of it at that point, even if it makes no sense to anyone save those who receive direct benefits, is extremely difficult. The state of Pennsylvania, among its many governmental follies, has monopolized liquor and wine sales. The entire program is profoundly stupid and serves no genuine public interest, almost everyone knows it, but it’s nearly impossible to eliminate because the state liquor bureaucracy is a significant employer in parts of the state where very few other sources of employment exist.

Call this post an early 21st-Century search for “Profiles in Courage”: I’m interested in examples of government officials, bureaucratic authorities or institutional leaders who in relatively recent times have been willing, in a relatively disinterested and nonpartisan manner, to say that some program supported by their own party or colleagues or organization was a mistake, have been willing to take the heat for the waste and loss of investment in the mistake, and have been able to see through the dismantling of the mistake even to the point of losing their jobs or office over it. This has more than a little relevance to our current political situation: the major suspense about the American political future is about who is going to be stuck having to be a grown-up about past mistakes.

I’m honestly curious about and eager to hear about good examples of people in power who’ve stepped up to the plate when it’s clear that some very costly and possibly well-meaning project is just not going to work.

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21 Responses to Mistakes Were Made

  1. Phil Palmer says:

    I sort of got the impression that the latest shuttle scare was stage-managed – that NASA needs a successor to the shuttle program, and that the purpose of the tiling spacewalk was to demonstrate that astronauts are useful and should be included in the design. Not their best idea if so, since it is beginning to look like one failure after another from a bunch of losers who couldn’t tile you a bathroom, but in this case it is a PR failure rather than a technical one.

    If you want examples of large projects being cancelled look to the British, who are rather too good at it, having wrecked just about every co-production with the French (Concorde and the final version of the Channel Tunnel being the two that got away) and destroyed their own railway system. Or any of the several cities that have motorways ending in mid-air.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. The thing with the shuttle is just that it’s been a bad idea since the beginning, quite aside from its technical problems: an expensive piece of hardware without any obvious or pressing use that couldn’t be satisfied more cheaply in some other fashion. (Yes, there’s a few shuttle missions that probably were uniquely suited to it, but not many.) But isn’t the issue with this launch not the tiling fix but the foam that came off after launch?

    The destruction of British Rail doesn’t quite seem what I’ve got in mind: that was actually working before it was screwed up.

  3. back40 says:

    But the Concorde never worked. The “Concorde Fallacy” is another name for the “sunk cost fallacy”, and that’s really what you seem to be getting at. This is a very sticky issue since it is as much a human tendency in the individual sense as the institutional sense. Institutions amplify the problem with group consciousness: when the group is faced with a negative feedback, members will not suggest abandoning the earlier course of action because this might disrupt the existing unanimity, and they can’t face the double loss of wasted resources and loss of consensus. This is a hot topic in anthro dealing with social collapse. See Overexploitation of Renewable Resources by Ancient Societies and the Role of Sunk-Cost Effects – Janssen, M. A. and M. Scheffer. 2004.

    As I see it this is important for the design of institutions, a built in self punking tendency that suggests a need for very careful consideration of exit strategies for every institution. They’re a whole lot easier to start than stop. The bigger they are the worse the problem.

  4. sharon says:

    Ah, but with Concorde no politician ever did what Tim is asking about and stood up to say, Concorde is a waste of time and money; if it hadn’t been for the disaster, it’d still be flying now. Yes, British projects regularly screw up and some even get cancelled – exits without any particular strategy at all – but you’ll never catch any politician actually taking responsibility for the screw up. They might get pushed sometimes, but they won’t jump.

    I have Robin Cook on my mind right now, for obvious reasons, as the rare politician who was prepared to voluntarily resign for his principles, but that’s not really the same sort of situation either, since he went before the ‘project’ started.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Gary’s exactly grasped my general concern: we need to design institutions so that there are real, regularly scheduled sunsets on every new project or idea that it takes positive effort to overcome them and keep the project going. Since we don’t have any good institutional examples that I can think of (some mistakingly regard this as just an issue with ‘big government’, when in fact it pervades all modern institutions, including businesses and civic institutions), the only thing to look for is the occasional courageous leader who bucks the tide. The Concorde also isn’t an example: it clearly was a project that should have been strangled in its crib but wasn’t; it was ended by its own technical failures rather than a courageous leader who pulled the plug despite the sunk-cost.

    Robin Cook is a good example of the kind of person I’m thinking of, but not quite the kind of problem or issue I have in mind.

  6. SamChevre says:

    This general concern is one of the big underpinnings of public choice economics. As you point out, the problem of programs taking on a life of their own is not limited to government–it happens in every large organization. However, it is worse in government, because of the absence of any significant competitive pressure. (A business that spends too much of its resources on foolish programs eventually goes out of business; the DMV can be staffed based on patronage and it stays in business.)

    A good example of political courage is the current Governor of Tennessee, Phil Bredesen. He is trying to reform TennCare to get costs under control; TennCare was intended to expand the number of patients covered by Medicaid, and control costs more tightly–unfortunately, it was poorly designed, and “patient advocates” fought any restrictions, so it grew far too expensive to maintain. It had grown to be 1/3 of the state budget. Bredesen is a Democrat; the program was instituted by a Republican governor, but had broad Democratic support.

  7. ebehren1 says:

    I suspect that reliance on individual agents of change, the hero on a white horse, will get you nowhere. It might be nice if for a pol to show some spine. But then, we have a U.S. president who seems to be all spine–after all, he touched the thrid rail of American politics. Not that it’s helped him.

    The shuttle program technically does have a finite timeline. Unfortunately, its draped in mission-speak, and we can’t ever fail to complete our mission! Maybe if we flew the Shuttle program heads onto an aircraft carrier with gigantic banners saying “Mission Accomplished!” we could all feel good about the debacle and go home. Or not.

    Your post really reminded me of military base closings as an interesting case. I’m not in a position of really being able to assess the effectiveness of BRAC, but I did find it interesting that the Commission actually added bases to the closure list beyond what the administration requested. Is it a rigged system? I have no idea. But as I understand it, the idea of BRAC is to limit the political exposure of individual legislators on the military base closings. Your Senator can hold a press conference to thump his or her chest in support of the local base, but everybody knows that it’s mostly a show for the home audience. Given what a wasteful pork pit most non-personnel military spending is, I *think* I’m a grateful taxpayer to have some unit of government that actually has a mission to pull the plug on unnecessary facilities.

  8. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    I’ve been advocating sunset provisions for laws and corporate charters for a decade now. Make it a negative option: this law/document will *automatically* expire in five years unless renewed.

    If it’s a good program with a solid constitutency, it will be renewed.

    Btw I might point out that the space station program was designed with constituency-building to begin with. It was not merely an idea that went awry; it was wry-designed in the first place.

  9. Minivet says:

    You might look into the end of the Civil Aviation Authority (/Administration?) in the 1970’s. I don’t know much about the constituencies involved, but I recall reading that just a few years after the deficiencies of the regulatory system were brought up for debate, a majority of the CAA’s own commissioners voted in support of its outright dissolution, which would be impressive in itself.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    CAA sounds like a promising example.

    I’m not looking for a man on a white horse as a desirable way to accomplish this: merely observing that in the absence of institutions which are designed programmatically to kill programs which fail or serve no purpose, leaders who will are almost the only alternative. But the CAA example does remind that sometimes whole groups will say, “This thing needs to die”.

  11. Ralph says:

    Tim, I’ve thought about this post on and off since you put it up and I keep thinking that, at least so far as government is concerned, the libertarians do have the instinct to do this. In the past, I suppose that a traditional conservatism, with its values of small government, fiscal restraint, and dispersed power, might have done so. Unfortunately, I don’t see either the libertarian or traditional conservative instincts wielding much influence these days, when big government conservatism seems to have sucked all of the life force out of them.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    The only major problem on this score is that classic libertarians have too narrow and obsessive an understanding of the problem: they see it as an ill of government rather than a problem with institutions (including corporations). Also I’m not sure if even when there were authentically small-government conservatives in power if any of them stepped forward to try and cancel something that they themselves had supported or advocated, or went after pork that benefitted their own district.

  13. ming the more-or-less says:

    Think of the peacetime Navy. It’s expensive. It doesn’t do much.
    But we keep it around. Partially because (a) it discourages potential foes, and (b) impresses allies, and (c) gives policy makers a tool to work with when crises erupt, but mostly because it’s something that can be built up for serious contingencies — such as world wars.

    Let me suggest gently that the US space program for the past 30 years fits this pattern. It’s been moderately expensive — but not terribly so in the context of a 10 trillion dollar economy. And it hasn’t done much — but most of the publica and most of our political leaders haven’t wanted it to do much — most emphatically have not wanted it to do much.

    Why keep it going? Because if the USA ever really closed it down – mothballed Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers, laid off the aerospace engineeers that work on the program, fired the astronauts, stopped funding space-related R&D — it would eventually be totally impossible to restart such a program.

    We’re paying for insurance, in other words.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a reasonable description of the space program, I suppose. But I think it’s fair to say that even within that context that the space shuttle and current design of the international space station represent bad implementations of even that concept of the space program’s purpose–not the least because they’ve threatened the continuation of the “insurance” concept by their technical shakiness and poor cost-benefit ratio. The purpose you describe could just as well have been served by a program of refining conventional rocket-based launch designs, or by commissing a wide range of variant prototypes, etc: even within the “keep it going just in case” justification there were (and are) better strategies.

  15. Might not some cases of decolonization be instances of what you’re looking for? I’m thinking particularly of de Gaulle’s pullout from Algeria and Gorbachev’s dismantling of the Warsaw Pact. (I don’t know enough about British decolonization in Africa to know if that would count.) Also, how about Lenin’s abandonment of War Communism in 1921 and Deng Xiaobing’s (sp?) post-Mao abandonment of agricultural collectivization?

    Unfortunately, three of these examples involve dictatorships or semi-dictatorships.

  16. eb says:

    A lot of proposed monorails were never built, but the idea seemed quite popular for a while. I wonder if similar things have happened with freeways, though the only ones I can think of not having been built were stopped because of “freeway revolts”, not because politicians voluntarily pulled back.

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    Bruno Latour’s Aramis, or the Love of Technology is about a French mass transit project that was eventually strangled after a lot of development money, and there, arguably, it was an institutional (as well as political) decision to abandon it, because it simply wasn’t working right.

    It would be pretty unfashionable to argue that decolonization was an example of this kind of voluntaristic pull-back from a failure, but I think you could argue that was at least part of it. Gorbachev’s reforms are another interesting possibility to think about. I’d add the National Party’s abandonment of apartheid to that particular list.

  18. “It would be pretty unfashionable to argue that decolonization was an example of this kind of voluntaristic pull-back from a failure”

    I’m guessing that the preferred interpretation would be that the colonial powers had no choice but to grant independence. As I said, I don’t know much about the history of decolonization, but my impression is that de Gaulle at least could have held on in Algeria, at least for a while.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    The more typical argument is either that they had no choice, or that decolonization was simply a switch to a more efficient form of domination (e.g., “neocolonialism”). But my inclination is increasingly yours, to argue that it was also an admission of failure on multiple levels by European elites, a voluntaristic pull-back from a mistake.

  20. David Chudzicki says:

    I’m curious whether a similar phenomenon occurs in academia, not with regard to an institution’s committments to particular programs (which would be what you’re talking about already), but with individuals’ or groups’ committments to particular theories/viewpoints. But I guess that would be more difficult to diagnose, as it’s probably not as clear when a particular theory has ‘failed.’ I don’t have any examples in mind.

  21. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, to fess up, yes I very much think academia has this kind of institutional problem, on both scores. It’s why many faculty are legitimately uneasy at those moments when a viewpoint or theory steps up and asks to be underwritten as an institutional program, because from that point on, the theory acquires an institutional tangibility and permanence that it lacked up to that moment, a capacity to reproduce itself without having to submit to the general will of the community. There are theories which never cloak themselves in institutional flesh, and I do think those flash in and out of existence or authority in a much more mobile fashion. But once a particular intellectual orthodoxy puts its hands on institutional mechanisms of various kinds, it has the same resistence of any kind of “sunset” testing, the same ability to reproduce itself long past any demonstrated utility or generativity.

    It’s one reason why, when I was fantasizing about my dream college, I thought about the dissolution of departmental forms of organization. The more scholars had to carry on the business of intellectual reproduction in a “big room” rather than a small one, the more I suspect that various theories and paradigms would be subject to constant pressures for continuing usefulness.

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