Megaprojects, Cost-Benefit Analysis, and “Social Welfare”

Timothy Taylor writes about “The Iron Law of Megaprojects vs. the Hiding Hand Principle“. He begins by quoting a piece by Bent Flyvbjerg in Cato Policy Report (January 2017):

Megaprojects are large-scale, complex ventures that typically cost a billion dollars or more, take many years to develop and build, involve multiple public and private stakeholders, are transformational, and impact millions of people. Examples of megaprojects are high-speed rail lines, airports, seaports, motorways, hospitals, national health or pension information and communications technology (ICT) systems, national broadband, the Olympics, largescale signature architecture, dams, wind farms, offshore oil and gas extraction, aluminum smelters, the development of new aircrafts, the largest container and cruise ships, high-energy particle accelerators, and the logistics systems used to run large supply-chain-based companies like Amazon and Maersk.

For the largest of this type of project, costs of $50-100 billion are now common, as for the California and UK high-speed rail projects, and costs above $100 billion are not uncommon, as for the International Space Station and the Joint Strike Fighter. If they were nations, projects of this size would rank among the world’s top 100 countries measured by gross domestic product. When projects of this size go wrong, whole companies and national economies suffer. …

If, as the evidence indicates, approximately one out of ten megaprojects is on budget, one out of ten is on schedule, and one out of ten delivers the promised benefits, then approximately one in a thousand projects is a success, defined as on target for all three. Even if the numbers were wrong by a factor of two, the success rate would still be dismal.

So far, so good. But then Taylor says this:

A common comeback to the Iron Law of Megaprojects is that if we pay attention to it, we will be so dissuaded by costs and risks of megaprojects that nothing will ever get done. Alfred O. Hirschman offered a sophisticated expression of this concern in his 1967 essay, “The Hiding Hand.” Hirschman argued there there is rough balance in megaprojects: we tend underestimate the costs and problems of megaprojects, but we also tend to underestimate the creative with which people address the costs and and problems that arise.

I will come to the irrelevance of Hirschman’s argument, but first a few more tidbits from Taylor:

[Flyvbjerg] argues that a number of prominent megaprojects have been completed on time and on budget. When choosing which megaprojects to pursue, it is useful to avoid underestimating costs and overestimating benefits. [Wow, what an astute observation.] …

Further, Flyvbjerg offers a reminder that even when a megaproject is eventually completed, and seems to be working well, project may still have been uneconomic–and society may have been better off without it.

The second comment brings Taylor close to the heart of the matter. But he never gets there. Like most economists, he overlooks the major flaw in the application of cost-benefit analysis to government projects: Costs and benefits usually have different distributions across the population. At the extreme, benefits that accrue only to the indigent are borne almost entirely by the non-indigent. (The indigent may pay some sales taxes.)

Cost-benefit analysis (applied to government projects) effectively rests on the assumption of a social welfare function. If there were such a thing, then it would be all right for people to go around punching each other (and worse), as long as the aggressors derived more gains in “utility” than the losses suffered by the victims.

Obama’s New Regulatory Regime

Eric Posner, writing in The New Republic (“Obama’s Cost-Benefit Revolution“), comments on Obama’s new executive order about cost-benefit analysis and regulation. Posner offers some background:

Long ago, cost-benefit analysis was a rallying cry for conservatives. It was brought to government by none other than Ronald Reagan, in Executive Order 12291 of 1981. Reagan was riding the wave of the deregulatory movement, which held that regulation of industry was excessive and stunted economic growth. His order stipulated that agencies should issue regulations only after finding that the benefits exceeded the costs.

Outraged liberals charged that cost-benefit analysis was a pretext to stifle regulation, and that it was arbitrary because of the difficulty of attaching dollar values to lives, environmental goods, and other regulatory benefits. Conservatives replied that cost-benefit analysis blocks bad regulations: Why would one support a regulation that produces higher costs than benefits? At the time, the alternative was regulation that seemed to reflect no more than the instincts of bureaucrats (or the agendas of interest groups), accompanied by impenetrable bureaucratese. The debate continued in this vein for decades, but over time, positions shifted. Some liberals came to see cost-benefit analysis as a good-government tool that promotes transparency and accountability, while some conservatives began to wonder whether it confers legitimacy on the New Deal state.

Cost-benefit analysis — even when it is done well — is a sham. But Obama’s approach (an extension of Clinton’s) reveals it as a scam:

Now, the press has reported that Obama’s executive order, which explicitly renews Clinton’s, signals victory for business. But the executive order also provides plenty of wiggle room that can be exploited by pro-regulatory forces, as indeed did Clinton’s before it. Unlike Reagan’s original order, which simply asked agencies to perform cost-benefit analysis, Clinton’s allowed agencies also to take account of “equity.” Obama’s adds that agencies should take account of “human dignity” and “fairness,” values, it helpfully notes, that are “difficult or impossible to quantify.” This is problematic because quantification is the point of cost-benefit analysis. Cost-benefit analysis works in the first place only because it imposes mathematical discipline on agencies. They must supply evidence that a proposed regulation has certain benefits and costs, monetize those benefits and costs, and report a number. If the number is greater than zero, then the agency may regulate. If agencies can instead point to unquantifiable benefits such as the promotion of human dignity, they can do whatever they want, and the main selling point of cost-benefit analysis—government transparency—is eliminated.

The sham to which I refer above is this:

One person’s benefit cannot be compared with another person’s cost. Suppose, for example, the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that “proved” the wisdom of constructing yet another freeway through the city in order to reduce the commuting time of workers who drive into the city from the suburbs. In order to construct the freeway, the city must exercise its power of eminent domain and take residential and commercial property, paying “just compensation,” of course. But “just compensation” for a forced taking cannot be “just” — not when property is being wrenched from often-unwilling “sellers” at prices they would not accept voluntarily. Not when those “sellers” (or their lessees) must face the additional financial and psychic costs of relocating their homes and businesses, of losing (in some cases) decades-old connections with friends, neighbors, customers, and suppliers. (This is from “Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare“; see also “Modern Utilitarianism.”)

Throwing “equity,” “human dignity,” and “fairness” into the equation takes us from sham to scam. As Posner says,  “[t]hese wiggle words … might be licenses to agencies to regulate however they want to.” There’s no “might” about it.

Well, there is a kind of “might” about it. The might of government regulators to force their preferences on us.