Perhaps the most important lesson for me as a student of economics was, “Some is preferred to none. More is preferred to less. Until it is too much.”
This simple adage applies to most, perhaps all things in life. It describes our experiences with peanut butter, pizza, beer, sex and the news from Washington.
From this concept comes the phrases easily spoken by economists and readily turning off their listeners, including “diminishing marginal utility” and “economies of scale.”
These may be the most important elements today shaping our apprehension about tomorrow. Small is endangered and big is getting too big. What we need to learn is how to grow and how to contract.
The problems are seen at every scale of operation:
Individual homeowners are victims of their homeowners’ associations.
Small towns are slowly disappearing from the countryside, while big cities are being crippled by congestion and pollution.
Small businesses are unable to compete with big businesses, which are strangled by their own bureaucracies.
Small nations are powerless against large nations, which are unmanageable.
There is indisputable evidence that unit costs decline as more is produced or more are served ... up to a point. Then those costs can rise with overcrowding, increased maintenance, and simple confusion of competing demands. Do we know how to shrink huge hospitals, universities, companies and governments?
Think of a restaurant. A family eatery struggles until it becomes a delightful place for a leisurely meal. With popularity. customers stand and wait until more tables are set up. The kitchen enlargement means more cooks and servers. New technology and management systems are employed, a chain established, and district managers hired. But has growth gone too far?
Look around. See the struggles of businesses and communities today adopting strategies to downsize, to shed real estate and personnel as technology and preferences change.
This is happening with businesses and cities in Indiana and across America. People who move from the stifling emptiness of small towns to larger places are disappointed by the traffic snarls, the impersonal life, the expense of the amenities that lured them in the first place.
Similarly, those who escape the big city to the quiet suburb become disenchanted by the smugness of the entrenched “old guard,” the endless construction of new homes, the traffic, the new stop lights, the traffic circles, the noise, the chain stores moving in and the disappearance of the personal service from entrepreneurial shop owners, all brought on by the emergence of the problems they sought to leave behind?
In effect, is the quality of life deteriorating in the eyes of those who expected better by using their increased income and/or leisure to move elsewhere? Is discontent with prosperity and growth a consequence of our poorly managed experiences?
Aside from short-term headline hysteria, do we have the time to address our future?