Machiavellian Infrastructure Spending

Friday, November 25, 2016
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I'm a PoliSci guy at my core; a long time ago I wrote about Machiavellian Social Media. More recently I've been thinking about infrastructure spending (long story) and was wondering if we can apply the lessons of Machiavelli's The Prince to the challenge of building public infrastructure.

Basically my core takeaway from the Prince was that if you are going to do harm do it it one fell swoop -- because as Thaler explains in Misbehaving, people feel losses twice as strong as they feel gains (See: Impossible Conversations: Misbehaving by Richard Thaler)-- and to parse out gains slowly as to maximize the (for lack of a better term) public relations benefits over time.

The challenge with infrastructure is that it is next to impossible to be swift with the gains and/or consolidate the negative impacts into a single experience. If fact, big infrastructure projects do the opposite. They stretch the pain out over extended periods of time (e.g. LRT construction in Ottawa) and doll out the benefit at the end (e.g. system actually coming online). Meaning that if Machiavelli was right, there is no way for a government -- of any stripe or operating within any jurisdiction -- to win in the court of public opinion when it comes to infrastructure projects.

I suppose the lesson is, if it is truly a war of attrition, why do we still throw scarce resources at fighting the PR battle in the first place? Wouldn't shifting those resources upstream (e.g. speeding up the development project) be a more effective strategy?

What would Machiavelli do?