Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Can efficiency be a bad thing?

Despite having a profound mistrust of those with blind faith in the Free Market, principles of economics often do make a lot of sense in almost every arena of life--if applied correctly. Generally, the ultimate goal in free market economics is efficiency: when the dance between suppliers and consumers results in perfect harmony and production proceeds at the lowest per unit cost.

This morning I was reading Michael Pollan (a current daily ritual), and the author marvels at the brutal efficiency of our industrial food system. With a mere 1 million farmers, we are able to feed nearly 300 million hungry consumers. For a handful of quarters, a customer at McDonald's can get more calories than most people in Africa consume in a day*.

From an energy**-cost perspective, this is remarkably efficient. There was a time when food was scarce, calories were much harder to come by, and calorie binging then made much more sense.

But,, if you are asking yourself whether this calorie surplus is actually beneficial to the modern consumer, you probably wouldn't be alone. This seems to be one instance where "efficiency" can lead us down a dangerous path if all variables aren't considered when calculating what is efficient.

Read this article by Andrew Leonard about the dangers of efficiency as an end goal in the business world.

"If we are simply optimizing bad processes, efficiency as an end-goal means very little."

Hear, hear.

* I just completely made that up, but I'm 99 percent sure it's correct.
** By energy, I mean that calories are the energy that the human body needs to run.

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