The tragic downside of efficiency

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By Charles Marohn

There are a handful of mainstream economic values that are part of the consensus of America public policy discourse. The value of growth, for example, is not seriously questioned by anyone wanting to maintain their credibility. I’ve been in countless city council meetings where some ridiculous notion was being pursued merely because it offered the potential for growth. Being perceived as “anti-growth” will get most public officials voted out of office, particularly the higher up the government food chain you travel. 

Efficiency is another one of those values. In general, if something is more efficient, it is better. And all kinds of great things seem to happen when we make our systems increasingly efficient.

While tragically incomplete, valuing efficiency is not without merit. Fuel efficient automobiles use less energy per mile traveled. Energy efficient homes use less energy per square foot. In normal times, it’s difficult to argue that these are bad outcomes.

Unfortunately, these are not normal times.

If we ask what the opposite of efficient is, the first word that comes to mind is likely “inefficient.” In our efficient-is-good value set, the opposite of efficient is essentially “bad.” 

Efficient = Good  ~  Inefficient = Bad

I’d like to unpack that relationship a little bit because there are words other than “inefficient” that provide more meaning to what is going on. For example: redundancy. Instead of inefficient, we could also say “spare parts” or “slack in the system.” 

If we’re making efficient use of our farm field, we’re planting every square inch. If we’re making efficient use of our highway, we’re getting the most vehicles through in the shortest amount of time. If we’re making efficient use of our capital, we’re creating just-in-time delivery of goods.

One of the lessons to take away from the 2020 is this: Efficient is the same as fragile. The more efficient a system becomes, the more fragile it becomes. 

Let me give an urgent example: prescription drugs. I take Levothyroxine (Synthroid) daily for a thyroid condition. It’s manufactured in Puerto Rico, or was the last time I checked. This has been enough of a concern for me that, over the years, I’ve saved a pill here and there to build up my own reserve stockpile.

Hypothyroid is a forgiving medical condition where skipping a pill a week is manageable, but there are many other ailments that are not. Back in the good old days when all we worried about were trade wars and currency devaluations (last August), NBC News did a report on how we’ve “outsourced our entire [drug supply] industry to China.” 

“If China shut the door on exports of medicines and their key ingredients and raw material, U.S. hospitals and military hospitals and clinics would cease to function within months, if not days,” said Rosemary Gibson, author of a book on the subject, “China Rx.” 

Offshoring to China was very efficient, no doubt saving us quite a bit on our essential prescription drugs, allowing us to provide more medication to more people in the near term. Yet, with the country at the literal epicenter of this pandemic, would we give back that efficiency today if we didn’t have to worry about global supply chains for essential medications? If all the people who are now going to be affected didn’t have to suffer? Absolutely we would.

Most of us can do very little at this point to address that problem, but all of us can learn the lesson. The very first insight of the Strong Towns Approach is to “stop valuing efficiency and start valuing resilience.” We can prepare to do this today, right now, as we ponder how we will sustain and ultimately rebuild our communities after this crisis has abated. 

The top/down Suburban Experiment—build all at once, to a finished state—is engineered to be efficient, to generate economic growth by replicating a pattern of development over and over and over again. 

The bottom/up Traditional Development Pattern—build the next increment on a continual path of improvement—was evolved to be strong and resilient, providing an adaptable framework proven to withstand (and even thrive) during times of distress.

All the anxiety we are feeling—and it’s going to increase as the economic implications spread beyond Wall Street—is magnified by the fragility of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. For example, we’ve had multiple reports of big box stores with bare shelves while the neighborhood stores are well-provisioned. 

That may not continue, but it’s hard for me to not suspect that the dozen small grocers, butchers, and other food-providers my neighborhood once had (we have zero today, just a big box in the adjacent neighborhood) would have had shorter supply chains, more redundancies, and been better positioned to serve the neighborhood in the coming weeks.

We’re going to have to do without that now. This is where we are, and we need to help each other through this. Yet, as a Strong Towns advocate, let’s keep our eyes on what comes next. Let’s insist that, as we rebuild, we’re going to do it on a model of resiliency, not efficiency.

Charles Marohn

Charles Marohn – known as “Chuck” to friends and colleagues – is the Founder and President of Strong Towns and the author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. He is a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a land use planner with two decades of experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning, both from the University of Minnesota.

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