trade-offs

It seems to me that human beings in general, and Americans in particular, stubbornly resist the idea that life often presents us with trade-offs — opportunity costs, as the economists say, or incompatible goods. Isaiah Berlin says something especially hateful to most of us when he asserts that “Some among the Great Goods cannot live together…. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.” 

I’ve reflected on this point over the past few days as silly people have insisted that the state of Texas should obviously have prepared its power-generation plants for every eventuality: Arctic cold as well as Saharan heat.

The silliness here is twofold. First, it’s practically unfeasible: the financial cost for Texas to build its infrastructure around the possibility of Chicago-like winters is just as outrageous as would be the cost for Seattle to prepare its infrastructure for Texas-like summers. 

But there’s a second and deeper point to be made: What if there are circumstances in which it’s actually not possible to prepare for every possible eventuality, because the opportunity cost of preparing for one extreme is failure to prepare for the other? 

See, for instance, this Wall Street Journal article on the design of Texas’s power plants: 

The state’s plants are designed to shed heat instead of keeping it in, which helps in hot months but can be detrimental during cold snaps, according to researchers at the Electric Power Research Institute. But on Thursday Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who criticized the performance of his state’s grid operator this week and called for changes amid a public outcry, recommended that Texas plants winterize their equipment and that the state should supply the funding to make it happen…. 

Given the state’s normally warm climate, not all of Texas’ power plants are fully equipped with winterization measures — protections plants use to prevent freezing of pipes, sensors, motors and other components. In northern climates, many winterization measures are permanent and plants are housed within entire building structures for protection from the cold. But experts said that because of Texas’ summer heat, plant operators need to keep components exposed.

What if sometimes you have to choose between two goods? What if you actually can’t have both? Wow, that would really suck. Therefore it cannot be true. 

February 19, 2021

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