I have long been a fan of the writer, statistician, and “flaneur” of financial markets Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His eye for the unseen and his heavy emphasis on sample selections and randomness in the world always struck a chord with my basically Misesian heart. That he’s ruthlessly unafraid of controversy and a remarkably clear writer also helps fuel my admiration.
As a popular writer, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has been extraordinarily successful. Not only does he have hundreds of thousands of thousands of followers across popular platforms, but his books — collected in the Incerto boxed set — have sold millions of copies and contributed to intellectual discourse in many quarters.
One fairly odd aspect of Taleb’s profound work is his rejection of efficiency in favor of redundancy. To most economists, this feels intuitively weird. In most economic thinking, “redundancy” sounds like a synonym for inefficient, which is generally considered bad. After all, redundancy means that two or more systems perform a single function when one would have sufficed. Removing that superfluous system would free up resources available for use elsewhere.
Or would it?
Contrary to your average economist, Taleb sees a greater number of redundant features such as insurance, additional margins of error, or back-up systems as better. This isn’t a mindless mistake on Taleb’s part, of course, but totally consistent with his general story of hidden orders in social life: uncertainty and randomness play larger roles than we commonly accept or understand. Where so-called “fragilizing” economists see inefficient redundancies, we should really see overlapping insurances. The sample from which the world draws its events is not clearly visible, and redundant systems may protect against some not-yet-observed threat.
An illustrative application of this topic is a conversation I had recently with an environmentally conscious acquaintance of mine, where she lamented the carbon footprint of my excessive flying. In contrast to the prevailing Gospel According to St. Greta — where nobody ought to fly — this friend took a somewhat more reasonable position.
Sure, we should enjoy the immense individual and global benefits of flying, but we ought to minimize emissions — by choosing alternative modes of transportation whenever feasible or by investing in more fuel-efficient engines. Two rather innocent suggestions for flight operations also made her list: reduce this airlines’ tendency for layovers and make airlines aim for higher load factors (load factor is the industry term for how full the flight is — that is, how large a proportion of available passenger seats is occupied).
At first, these suggestions seem rather innocent: Of course we should get as much passenger “bang” for our climate-damage “buck” as possible by filling planes to the brim. While an additional passenger makes the plane somewhat heavier and thus consumes a little bit more fuel, most flights emit a similar amount of CO2 equivalents regardless of how many passengers they carry. Splitting that environmental damage over more people — with fuller planes — is therefore a bonus. Aircrafts also emit relatively more CO2 equivalents during take-off and landing, which implies that reducing layovers would result in a smaller impact on the planet.
A few years ago, I flew British Airways on a dirt-cheap ticket from London to Edinburgh on a regular Sunday evening. If memory serves me right, the route was serviced by a seemingly outsized Boeing 747 — those wide 3+4+3 planes that usually transport hundreds of people on transatlantic flights. To the horror of efficiency-embracing economists and environmental activists alike, the flight was almost empty. Judging by the peanuts I paid for the ticket, this flight was also a loss-making flight for the company. Dividing that jumbo’s emissions from this single one-and-a-half hour flight among us few dozen passengers scattered in this eerily empty cabin would have blown all our carbon budgets to pieces.
None of us carried the climate cost of that trip. None of us carried its financial costs either. If capitalism is such a splendid — and even conservationist system — why did this obviously wasteful transaction take place?
Here’s where the Talebian wisdom comes in: Individual flights are not stand-alone transactions, the net climate impact of each neatly subject to political manipulation or moral suasion. They form part of a financial and logistical system. It was worth it for British Airways to fly a single unprofitable flight with some spare passengers because the next morning, the flight in the opposite direction was stuffed with commuters, businessmen, and businesswomen returning from a weekend in Scotland or attending meetings in London. To serve that very profitable (and quite possibly climate-efficient) route, they needed a plane available, capable of carrying the number of people traveling on Monday morning.
The flight I bought wasn’t really the transaction it looked like. British Airways needed to move a plane (and perhaps even a crew) in preparation for Monday’s profitable route; I was merely a bonus, a windfall, a cost reduction. They didn’t make money on me that day, but I marginally contributed to reducing their cost of operations.
An efficiency-minded environmentalist could object that this trip shouldn’t be made, a Marxist-leaning commentator that this was an example of the horrible waste and misallocation of the capitalist system.
Taking a step back and surveying the bigger picture reveals that not all that glitters inefficiently is gold. Not all individually inefficient branches, systems, or transactions are inefficient within their larger settings. Trimming what looks like the least efficient branch of a splendidly complicated tree is a very bad idea when that branch is necessary for the tree’s survival.
Nobody, least of all British Airways, wants to fly an almost empty plane — primarily for financial reasons but probably also for climate-conscious reasons. After all, few people enjoy polluting the planet for no good reason. To the untrained eye, redundancies look like inefficiencies that we can appropriately prune and relegate to a central planner’s garbage heap. But not all redundancies are inefficient; they serve a purpose.
For a company, call centers don’t make money, facility managers and support staff don’t bring home large orders, and security guards don’t make profits. But they’re all essential for the operation of the firm, playing invaluable supporting roles for the overall system.
Identifying and trimming the most wasteful divisions or transactions might seem like an optimizing strategy but actually just undermines an organization’s ability to function.