One of the chief things that plagues us as a people, in my opinion, is our misbegotten belief that we can follow economies of scale to reduce costs to an arbitrarily low level. To a degree, it comes from Adam Smith's "pinmaker" analogy, but probably more from the steam engine.
How so? Well, consider that it's difficult to make a small steam engine--and was far more difficult to do so 100 years ago. Large factories were built to take advantage of available horsepower, and people began to assume that fine specialization and massive economies of scale were the norm.
(interestingly, the diesel engine was Rudolf Diesel's attempt to provide an engine for smaller factories, overcoming efficiencies of scale)
Now certainly this works well in some areas. As Smith tells us, it's hard to make good pins without making a few thousand (or million) of them. However, it's easy to overstate the benefits, as the example of public transit makes clear.
Two really horrendous mis-applications of "economies of scale," in my opinion, are schools and churches. The logic appears sound; why not let those who are best at teaching or preaching do that full-time? Why not allow teachers, or senior pastors, to concentrate on mathematics, history, or preaching, and relieve them of other tasks?
The results, though, are clear; the one room schoolhouse delivered the equivalent of an associate's degree in only eight years of schooling, and Willow Creek Church near Chicago has just admitted that they've done a far better job of filling pews than of making disciples.
It turns out that real education requires far fewer subjects than you'd believe when looking at a typical high school or college coursebook, and making disciples means a little bit more than sitting them in a pew and talking to them, or putting them in a program.
Again, it's probably not something that's going to be a popular message among those who yearn for positions where a single dumb mistake could, as Dave Barry noted, consign thousands of men to joblessness. And yet it is true.
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