Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Enemy of the Good

Back when I was in the technology business I had a customer who kept improving the design of an instrument. It seemed that each improvement required a change in the design of the silicon chip it would use. We would just get prototypes done for that chip, then we would be told that modifications were required. Improvements continued until the state of the art passed them by and the project was canceled. The design team had “improved” that instrument right out of business. That illustrates a common saying in engineering: the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Now I have no objection to perfection. I would be delighted if my car, my body, and my children were all perfect. (To ensure domestic tranquility I should mention that my wife is already perfect.) The problem with perfection is not the concept but the cost and the difficulty, sometimes the impossibility, of achieving it. With enough money I could probably have a perfect car, but perfect children and perfect bodies seem to be rather rare in this world. We have to settle for what we can reasonably obtain and those who insist on perfection in everything will be disappointed.

Most people realize this. Unless your name is Bill Gates or Warren Buffet you probably cannot afford a perfect house so you settle for a good house or apartment, one that meets your most important needs. It may not have the pool, the game room, or the large family room you prefer but it works. The furniture and decorations you have in that home may not be what Gates or Buffet would have, but they do their job. If you can live happily there, then that home is a good home.

Furthermore we have to divide our resources between many needs and wants. Money spent on something like a fancy house is not available for use in buying a car, food, clothing, and other things we need. Time likewise is limited; we cannot be at the same time enjoying the beach with our children and earning the money to pay for that trip to the beach.

Most of us realize that our time and money are limited. We are talking about scarce resources that have alternative uses, so we have to prioritize. When we use our own resources we tend to think of such things. That fancy TV or restaurant meal may be worth the money it would cost, at least if we think of that expense in isolation. However if we think of it in terms of how many hours of work it takes to pay for it, or of what else we could do with that money or the time to earn the money, it may not be worth the resources we have to divert to its purchase.

Good businesses realize this. In fact most businesses face lots of opportunities in the form of new products or services they might offer. However managers realize that each opportunity would require scarce company resources. It takes time and talented people to develop, produce and market any new product. The wise manager will pick only those opportunities most likely to succeed and focus on those. Unwise decision-makers try to do too much; a problem that has caused many failures as companies diluted their efforts or entered fields where they had little expertise.

Unfortunately there are many who insist on perfection, often at the expense of others. They want a perfect health care system; everybody should have access to the latest medical tools and procedures. They want everybody to be able to own a house, even those who cannot afford to do so. They look at those items in isolation, without considering where the resources will come from or what other uses those resources might have. And they want to use the power of government to provide that perfection to everybody. Their motto is, “it’s worth it.” In isolation it may be worth it, but we do not live in isolation. We live in a complex world that requires trade-offs.

That government power is a big part of the problem. When you or I overspend, we face the consequences personally and often quickly. However government functionaries face no such consequences. They can even fool themselves into believing that they have unlimited budgets since they can print or borrow money. However this is about resources, not money. Printing more money does not create more MRI equipment or train more physicians. Encouraging lenders to offer mortgages to marginal borrowers does nothing to help those people make that monthly payment to avoid repossession. Even giving people money to pay the mortgage only takes resources away from other people.

In my opinion George W. Bush’s biggest problem was that the tried to do too much. He diluted his efforts and lost focus. Unfortunately President Obama seems to have the same problem but even worse. He is trying to do everything at once. Such an effort is bound to fail.

Of course we are not immune to this problem as individuals. In fact advertisers spend a great deal of money to convince us that every product is worth it. Some have even attacked our sense of self-worth by telling us that we are worth their product, implying that failure to purchase means that we are really not very worthwhile. We can and should resist that sucker-bait.

The way to resist the sucker-bait of accepting only perfection in everything is to keep our limitations in mind. We have only so much time and money. Whether in government or personal life we should think carefully about how to maximize the benefits we get from those limited resources.

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