Big public works projects inevitably cost far more than the original budget. I heard a talk about this a few years ago. The speaker gave many examples, including Boston’s Big Dig. His explanation was that these projects would not be approved if voters were told the truth. The German
newspaper magazine Der Spiegel has just published an interview with several architects responsible for recent German projects with especially large discrepancies between what people were told at the beginning and the unfolding reality — Berlin’s new airport, for example. The article’s headline calls them “debacles”. One architect gives the same explanation as the speaker I heard: “The pure truth doesn’t get you far in this business. The opera house in Sydney would never have been approved if they had known how much it would cost from the start.”
I disagree. I see the same massive underestimation of time and effort in projects that I do and that my colleagues and friends do, projects we do for ourselves that require no one’s approval. I think something will take an hour. It takes five hours. Plainly the world is more complicated than our mental model of it, sure, but there is more to it than that. Someone did a survey of people in Maryland who had been in a car accident so bad they had had to go to the hospital. Within only a year, a large fraction of them (half?) had forgotten about it. When asked if within the last year they had had an accident so bad they were hospitalized, they said no. Apparently we forget difficulties, even extreme ones, really fast. If you forget difficulties, you will underestimate them.
If I had realized how difficult everything would be, I couldn’t have done any of it is one explanation, which I’ve heard attributed to Gregory Bateson. From Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent review in this week’s New Yorker of a biography of Albert Hirschman, the economist, I learned that Hirschman — had he realized that this was human nature — would have had a different evolutionary explanation: We underestimate difficulties because this way of thinking increases innovation. Debacle . . . or opportunity? Difficulty is the mother of invention.