I have a lot of readers who come from a rationalist or Effective Altruism background, and some more who come from an economics background, and both communities put a lot of stock in the idea of correct predictions about current events. The idea is that scientists have to make testable predictions about the results of their experiments, and therefore social scientists must equally make predictions about the state of the world. It’s become relevant in the corona crisis and is also relevant to my and Eric Goldwyn’s construction cost project in a specific way, so I’d like to talk about the complexities of what it exactly means to get things right.
Consider the following prediction: the economy is overheated and a recession will come soon. It’s a vague prediction. One can fill in details to make it strictly testable – “the German economy will have >6% unemployment in 2 years” – but what exactly is the point of one detail or another?
The real answer is that different classes of people have different uses for the prediction of recession, and therefore depend on different details. The investor wants to sell stocks near the peak. The Nasdaq went from 2,200 at the beginning of 1999 to a peak of 5,100. To the investor, knowing that there was a bubble at the beginning of 1999 would not have been useful – cashing out then would have meant missing on a stock market doubling over the year. It would take until about the onset of the 2001 recession for the Nasdaq to fall below January 1999 levels. To the successful investor, it is critical to know the exact timing of the peak to maximize income, and in pursuit of that goal it’s fine to miss some recessions, let alone to miss other important details like the length of the recession and the unemployment rate.
In contrast with the investor, the skilled worker has different concerns, like unemployment. In that environment, knowing that there’s going to be a recession is useful even if the timing is vague – such a worker can save more money, delay major purchases, avoid quitting a stable salaried job to start a small business, and maybe shift to a more recession-proof job even if it means taking a pay cut. Knowing how deep the recession will be is important as well, and remains important knowledge even as the recession takes place – the worker needs to know how stressed to be about savings running out if there is prolonged unemployment. All of this is equally valuable to the prospective immigrant who needs to make a decision on whether to emigrate.
The investor-worker duality is especially important for economists, and to some extent to rationalists who try to follow popular economists. They have money to invest, and often work as advisors to finance firms that pay them for investor-relevant information. But they are also researchers, who can respond to an impending recession by acquiring recession-relevant skills, like studying the history of depressions and conducting empirical research about unemployment and anti-poverty interventions. These are such big research programs that the exact timing of the recession doesn’t really matter, whereas its depth and length matter. An economist who can answer questions like “what is the impact of unemployment programs on long-term welfare?” is useful in a general period of economic weakness even if the papers appear a year into the beginning of the recession.
Predictions and construction costs
Before we started our current project, I had been writing about construction costs here, in comments, and on social media going back to 2009-10. I had some theories over the years, of which some would be confirmed by additional data and others wouldn’t:
- The theory that common law leads to higher costs, based on high costs across the US, Singapore, the UK, Australia, Canada, India, and Bangladesh. I no longer believe this theory holds up; in the developed world, important edge cases disagree with the theory, including Quebec (expensive) and Israel (about average), and moreover Canadian and Singaporean costs only exploded in the last 15 years.
- The theory that costs are consistent across projects in the same country, especially the same city; I’m pretty sure I brought it up even in the early 2010s, when I was saying Chinese costs seemed pretty average to me, but the starkest formulation is from 2019. This has subsequently been confirmed when thanks to Yinan Yao our knowledge of Chinese costs grew from two lines in Shanghai to more than 5,000 kilometers’ worth of lines across all major Chinese cities.
- The theory that costs in developing countries are higher in ex-colonies than in never-colonized countries (like China and Iran) and distantly-colonized ones (like all of Latin America). As stated, there are counterexamples: I will report on our ongoing research into Arab construction costs, thanks to Anan Maalouf, but so far this is indicating that costs in never-colonized Saudi Arabia are pretty high. Call it half a correct prediction because Saudi Arabia is atypical enough I would not lump it a priori with China, Turkey, Mexico, or Iran.
With all that said, I am not too worried if my theories aren’t all confirmed by finding additional data. The reason is that this is not an experimental science but an observational one with a small, finite amount of data, so it’s much more important to have coherent mechanisms that can lead to actionable changes than to be able to predict every country’s construction costs from partial data.
In this case, the mechanisms posited in the 1.5 theories that do not stand up to additional data seem useful. The colonial theory is that high cultural cringe levels and weak state capacity lead ex-colonies to privatize planning to first-world (or Chinese) consultants, who use methods that are not appropriate for local conditions. On account of that explanation, I kept saying ex ante that I refused to make a prediction regarding Thailand, because it was never colonized but also has much more cultural cringe than China and uses first-world consultants; Thai costs are higher than Chinese ones but lower than ex-colonial ones. Saudi Arabia is similar – for all its bluster about rejecting Western governance norms, it craves first-world acceptance and the trappings of modernity, and extensively uses contractors from more developed countries. So the upshot regarding the importance of domestic state capacity and methods tailored for local urban geography and wages remains useful.
Likewise, the high costs across the Anglosphere remain a useful fact. Even more useful is the history of Singapore and Canada, which only aligned with British and American costs starting in the 2000s. The cost explosion in Singapore, Montreal, Toronto, and to some extent Calgary and Vancouver is a recent event, in accessible English-speaking cities; Stephen Wickens just wrote a long report about the Canadian cost explosion, which is of value in teasing out what happened. Even better, the persistent low costs in Scandinavia, Southern Europe, and South Korea provide ready-made sanity checks in knowing what to look for.
In one sense, I made a critical error that poses a serious threat to the project: I got the timing of the recession wrong. When applying for this grant throughout 2019, my assumption was that the American economy was overheated and would soon experience a demand-side recession, leading to stimulus – but that the contraction would be slow enough that the stimulus would come in 2021. With a jobs program announced in 2021, preliminary versions of our report would already be out, the full report with detailed case studies would be out later that year in time for agencies to request funding, and there would be enough time for agencies to implement our recommendations by the time of actual construction.
This may still happen, but the timeline is much less certain. People are talking about stimulus with infrastructure money now. I can promise a report with some actionable recommendations in 2021, but I can’t promise what costs I can promise, nor can I promise what investment to focus on. Our report centers on metro tunnels, but if there’s another push for high-speed rail then we’ll need to be able to adapt metro-based recommendations to a somewhat different context, in which high American costs may have different roots.
What’s more, based on what everyone knows in the United States, costs are so high there’s no point in planning for more. Maybe New York thinks it can finagle $40 billion in stimulus money; this can do a lot at Nordic costs, but unless New York thinks right now that this is possible, it won’t even try to plan more than a few lines like Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 and Gateway, each costing more than a full order of magnitude more than it would in Scandinavia or Southern Europe.
I am not that worried in the long run. There is ongoing investment in enough of the US for whatever we come up with to be relevant to at least some extent. And here too, a cost comparison with the cheaper parts of Europe would be instructive to many a German rail advocate or civil servant. I don’t expect to be in the situation of an investor who bet everything on a company that went bankrupt, just perhaps in that of one who missed a big stock market rally. Ultimately, don’t worry about me, worry about the virus this year and the unemployment rate of potentially the entire world in the next few years.