One of the peculiar features of debates about big monolithic infrastructure projects, such as universal broadband networks and high-speed rail lines, is the way their supporters talk about them in public. To advocates, the wisdom of these projects is obvious. You can never have too much broadband! High-speed rail is the future! Why can’t we be like the visionaries who built the Snowy Mountains Scheme?!? $50 billion, $100 billion? “Chicken feed” is what we’ll call it in 20 years!
And indeed some opponents of these projects take the same attitude from the other side of the fence. Everything’s fine as it is! This new thing will be an enormous white elephant, obsolete before it is finished, you can bet on it!
What we don’t usually talk about is Knightian uncertainty – that is, risk you don’t know enough to quantify, or sometimes even recognise.
This was what former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was talking about when he famously spoke of “unknown unknowns“. That Rumsfeld’s comment is frequently ridiculed just shows how alien considerations of uncertainty are in the public discourse*. Almost no-one wants to say, “well, we just don’t know”. There are things you might do if you just don’t know. They rarely get talked about.
But if you’re having a serious conversation about infrastructure, you have to talk about uncertainty. Continue reading