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Monthly Reading, October 2023
Res Extensa #44 :: American high-speed rail, pace layering, in defense of nuclear power, and more
Today, we have cost overruns for all the wrong reasons. It’s not because we’re building wonders in record time, but because poor-performing programs keep moving through the production pipeline irrespective of the value they’re generating (among other reasons that require a separate post). The former category of cost overruns is acceptable, as I’ve hopefully convinced you through the example of the Pentagon. The latter category of cost overruns is an abomination and an affront to American excellence.
Just deliver the value promised and nobody will remember the price tag.
A reminder that what's most frustrating about graft-ridden, glacial government projects today isn't that they're over budget, it's that they don't deliver on their promises. When you overdeliver on the promise, underdelivering on the cost will be forgotten.
Speaking of over budget and disappointing projects,wrote about America's failed attempts to build promised high-speed rail. California is just one of the more recent in a long series of misfires:
California has received its fair share of criticism for the trajectory of its high-speed rail project. When voters first approved the $10 billion dollar bond issue for the project in 2008, it was projected to be completed by 2020 at a cost of $33 billion. Instead, its costs have ballooned to $128 billion, and the initial segment (which won’t connect Los Angeles and San Francisco), won’t be done until between 2030 and 2033.
At this point, does anyone have confidence it'll be done by 2033? It was approved 15 years ago and there are zero miles of track. Color me skeptical any cities will be connected in the next decade.
Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.
Take a coniferous forest. The hierarchy in scale of pine needle, tree crown, patch, stand, whole forest, and biome is also a time hierarchy. The needle changes within a year, the crown over several years, the patch over many decades, the stand over a couple of centuries, the forest over a thousand years, and the biome over ten thousand years. The range of what the needle may do is constrained by the crown, which is constrained by the patch and stand, which are controlled by the forest, which is controlled by the biome. Nevertheless, innovation percolates throughout the system via evolutionary competition among lineages of individual trees dealing with the stresses of crowding, parasites, predation, and weather. Occasionally, large shocks such as fire or disease or human predation can suddenly upset the whole system, sometimes all the way down to the biome level.
Morgan Housel has some useful perspective:
Today’s economy is good at creating two things: wealth, and the ability to show off wealth. Part of that is great, because saying “I want that too” is such a powerful motivator of progress. Yet the point stands: We might have higher incomes, more wealth, and bigger homes – but it’s all so quickly smothered by inflated expectations.
Packy McCormick launched a new podcast series called “Age of Miracles”, and the first season is with Julia DeWahl covering nuclear energy.
We’ve had the answer to clean energy for 70 years. I hope we’re finally on our way to getting past the resistance to nuclear.
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