May 27, 2011
Tim Harford is a British economist, a columnist for the Financial Times and author of the new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. We spoke last week about why governments have so much trouble failing well, whether voters should prefer indecisive politicians and what we can learn from the Iraq surge. Parts of this interview ended up in my column on the constructive role that failure can, and perhaps must, play in the health-care system.
Ezra Klein: The basic argument of your book is that the only way to solve complex problems is to fail toward the correct solution. But one of the things you suggest is that this is particularly hard for governments to do. Why?
Tim Harford: Let’s think about the balance of risks in the market or the scientific method. In both cases, you could have 50 failures and one success and you’ll still come out ahead. The theory of relativity and Google and penicillin more than make up for all the failed experiments, theories and businesses. The same is true, of course, of biological evolution. The number of failures are orders of magnitude larger than the successes.
Now think about politics. Any politician knows they can have 50 policies going well and one failure the failure will dominate the next campaign. So the politician is just desperate to avoid provable failure. And they can do that either by never doing anything or by refusing to quantify and evaluate what should happen when they do do something, as that way no one can prove it went wrong.
EK: One way this manifests, I think, is that there’s a preference for sweeping, blunt policies that may or may not work as opposed to more modest policies that accumulate over time but require patience and diligence. There’s something more satisfying about a big plan, like the Ryan budget, where you can just say it cuts costs by trillions of dollars by refusing to pay for more health care, than something like the Affordable Care Act, where it’s saying it’ll cut costs through aggressively experimenting with new ways to deliver care and hoping some of them will work.
TH: In politics, we like people who sound like they have a plan. Everyone remembers the Bush-Kerry election. And that election seemed to come down to one guy could make up his mind and one couldn’t. John Kerry’s defenders, as I recall, said he was decisive and that decisiveness just wasn’t coming through. Not that many tried to sell the idea that indecision is a virtue, that the world is uncertain and it makes sense to change your mind. In the U.K., Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair won six elections, and she famously said, “you turn if you want to, the lady is not for turning.” And Blair, after British forces had gone into Iraq, he said, “I don’t have a reverse gear.” Imagine if I tried to sell you a car that didn’t turn or have a reverse gear. Would you want to buy it? Of course not. But we like those politicians.