Sunday, August 12, 2012

Dangerous Optimism

I've seen it so often now that I can put numbers to it, and it applies to both individuals and organizations. A goal is set based on an optimistic judgement of what's involved, and one of the following results: (1) the goal isn't met; (2) the quality of what's done ends up being a fraction of what was intended; or (3) the goal is met, but someone else pays a large part of the price for it. Typically, the effort and resources required to accomplish any given task is two to three times these optimistic estimates, a factor that determines either the diminishing of quality or the "externalized cost" incurred.

For those who are successful at externalizing costs, it can appear that they are up to three times more efficient than others who incur more of the costs. Where competition for resources depends on achievement of more aggressive goals and on low internalized costs, such as in the world economy, everyone involved eventually must externalize as much as possible just to survive, and waste grows exponentially.

The poorest people are often those who have been forced to bear the costs pushed off by more "successful" people. As the waste grows, it overwhelms the ability of people to deal with it, and the number of poor and dying people grows with it. The world's combined waste is now nearly 60% of what the rest of nature can annually recycle, and still growing. The consequences are becoming catastrophic; like a Ponzi scheme, if it keeps going then everyone loses (I estimate this to be when the waste nears 75%).

Obviously, the simplest solution is to try to make more realistic assessments of the resources involved in meeting our goals, and to put as at least as much effort in assessing the impacts of our actions on everyone and everything potentially affected by them. In the simplest case, we would triple our estimates of required resources. The extreme case would involve full accountability: all of us honestly studying and publicizing the full effects of what we do and plan to do. This would no doubt slow down "progress," but it would also make it less destructive. Any error would be in large part due to lack of knowledge and understanding, which could be reduced by targeted efforts to increase both (as science is dedicated to doing).

Such solutions are, on their face, extremely unrealistic. It is human nature to compete, and deception is easier (and cheaper) than improving performance as long as the other competitors can be kept ignorant until the prize is won. Even a single competitor willing to deceive will decrease any value to performance for everyone else. A compromise is to have judges, which in society may consist of unbiased entities such as governments and journalists. The success of many of today's societies is often determined by how successful these entities are in maintaining their objectivity and power to limit deception.

Governments have the larger role of ensuring that their citizens can meet their basic needs, which includes keeping waste below an amount that overwhelms people's ability to survive. Not all governments acknowledge this role, and factions within every country actively debate its validity, but it remains a role that must be assumed by someone (if not everyone) within a society for the society to function.

Ideally – and I would argue, no matter what – plans for every goal, by every individual and group, should provide for preserving this basic right for the people impacted by the actions taken to meet the goal. Those who believe in limited government should take this into account before they act on their belief, or they should accept responsibility for the harm caused by not meeting this fundamental responsibility of society. We can't enjoy the benefits of society without providing for its survival, and that means avoiding dangerously optimistic planning that increases the waste that society has to deal with.