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Drissel on the Normative Core

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I received the following email from Bill Drissel about my “Public Choice: The Normative Core.”  Reprinted with his permission. Dr. Caplan The data you seek for your “normative core” is readily available in one arena: public transportation.  I follow the Anti-Planner, Randal O’Toole.  The planned benefit is number of riders.  The planned cost is usually available in dollars(of a given vintage).  The subsequent cost-overruns and consequent ridership are also available.  So every cost/benefit ratio could easily be adjusted by a “normative core adjustment”. For example, if extensive research shows that, for public transportation, actual costs / planned costs average 2.1 and actual ridership / planned ridership average 0.40, then the normative core adjustment factor for

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I received the following email from Bill Drissel about my “Public Choice: The Normative Core.”  Reprinted with his permission.


Dr. Caplan

The data you seek for your “normative core” is readily available in one arena: public transportation.  I follow the Anti-Planner, Randal O’Toole.  The planned benefit is number of riders.  The planned cost is usually available in dollars(of a given vintage).  The subsequent cost-overruns and consequent ridership are also available.  So every cost/benefit ratio could easily be adjusted by a “normative core adjustment”.

For example, if extensive research shows that, for public transportation, actual costs / planned costs average 2.1 and actual ridership / planned ridership average 0.40, then the normative core adjustment factor for public transportation = 5.25.  So for back-envelope calculations, the planned cost/benefit should be multiplied by 5 or so.

I have considerable acquaintance with software estimates including many that ended up in proposals and contracts.  I don’t know of a single case of software under-run (costs less than planned).  I would guess the typical over-run for routine software development at 2:1.  For difficult stuff: 5:1.  Really hard stuff like voice, face, fingerprint recognition: much higher than 5.  Development of a capable word processor with fonts and embedded images like MS Word, a single lifetime wouldn’t be enough.

I had a one-man consulting business for 45 years.  Whenever I asked a client about his over-run experience, I got a mournful story.  If I suggested he apply an experience-based multiplier, the response was always, “If we did that, we’d never get any business!”  I guess that’s the equivalent of, “Junior Professor: By that standard, government should never do anything.”

I admire the work that you and Don Boudreaux do.  I’m 87 but if I had encountered the public choice body of knowledge while I was much younger, I might have given up engineering for economics.

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Warmest regards,

Bill Drissel

[email protected]

The Colony, TX

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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