Three Cheers for Failure!

“Too big to fail.” we’ve heard that more than we like lately. A euphemism for businesses that are so intertwined with other businesses and societal institutions that we must do whatever it takes to keep them from failing, lest even worse things happen. This “whatever it takes” has amounted, of late, to pouring billions and billions of dollars into these failing enterprises.

Some commentators have said we should just let these organizations fail. If we don’t have an organizational ecosystem in which organizations are allowed to fail, they simply won’t be able to make judicious use of risk. “Sure, this action is risky, but not to us. We can rake in huge profits if it goes right, and if it doesn’t, well, the taxpayers will bail us out.” If there is no downside to risk, then more irrational risks will be taken.

Other commentators observe that our mistake is in letting organizations become so large and intertwined as to be “too big to fail.” They argue that we need more smaller enterprises that can fail without taking the whole system down with them.

Because I am sympathetic to both directions of thought, I’m concerned about one sector of our economic ecosystem that is getting larger and larger. At the same time we decry business organizations that cost us bundles of cash because we must, at all costs, keep them from failing, we are seeking to centralize the health care ecosystem, a huge part of our economy. While centralization and bigness can enable us to save money by the economy of scale, such giants are often clumsy.

By creating a system – that right from the beginning – is too large to fail, we are overly optimistic about our ability to come up with the best system on the first attempt. Our aims are so high that I’m concerned whatever we come up with will not be allowed to fail – even if it’s horrible, that the best we’ll be able to do, without the whole system crashing, is to do little tweaks here and there.

Or are we already at the stage? Are we already at a place where we’re unwilling to tolerate failure?

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