What, besides crony capitalism (a sort of reverse NIMBY) and regulatory capture, might explain the lack of breakout space-faring progress within U.S. government space programs? Could it be decision fatigue by lawmakers?
Decision fatigue describes the loss of mental acuity that results from analyzing and deciding on options.
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.
“Reckless” shortcuts might include throwing more money at an unexamined idea (or at one where better options exist, were they to be considered fairly). And ‘avoiding any choice’ in government programs that feature baseline budgeting normally means extending the baseline (also known as ‘keep doing what you’re doing’). If what you’re doing is cheap, fast, and good, extending the baseline or sustaining the status quo is an excellent choice. However, that is not often the case, especially as it regards government space costs.
When you exhaust your decision power, bad things can happen.
Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying). Decision fatigue leaves you vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales, as Jonathan Levav, the Stanford professor, demonstrated in experiments involving tailored suits and new cars.
In the last sentence, consider if professional and/or personal Congressional staffers as well as members of Congress might be ‘vulnerable’ to ‘marketers’ (lobbyists) at any point in their decision making process. Given the demands on the Congress, might a sort of space decision fatigue explain some of the resistance towards true commercial space efforts?
Or is it just crony capitalism and regulatory capture?