Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Let's not go there: avoiding markets in everything

Tyler Cowan, over at Marginal Revolution, was asked for some examples of successful government bureaucracies. He provided some thoughtful examples: "the NIH, the Manhattan Project, U.C. Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Fairfax County, the World Trade Organization, the urban planners of postwar Germany, some of the Victorian public works and public health commissions, most of what goes on in Singapore, anywhere that J.S. Bach worked."

One of the regular commentators objected to the Manhattan Project in this way: "Another thing, how is the Manhattan Project an example? Yes, they ended up creating an atomic weapon. But did they do it for less money than it would have taken a private company to do, if that had been legal and the company could reap the profits from selling A-bombs?"


Okay, now that my hair is back in a flat position, is there any way this could work?

a) Contract to the low bidder. At best, we have an airline result with our nuclear deterrent built with the cheapest materials possible. I'm rather worried about safety. In the mediocre case we get $10k hammers. Worse case (not worst, but worse) - Haliburton with H-bombs. We could name it the HALiburton-9000.

b) X-prize style. Get the best and brightest at dozens of private and public institutions working on it. It worked for space flight. Okay.... Security leaks are going to be killer... Undergrads at MIT working on nuclear warheads... Be afraid.

Just as an aside, I was watching Spiderman 2 for the first time last night while cleaning, so add to my list of fears Doc Ock with Einstein's head. Jurassic Park comes to mind as another example. Compared to the list of ways the entire project could have gone wrong, no matter who did it, I think it comes down as a success.

It might be instructive, though, to compare the Manhattan Project to other countries' efforts that also produced bombs: security, cost, time taken, etc.

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