Day 11 - Optimized Oven

March 26, 2020    covid-19 systems

Imagine you’re an oven manufacturer facing shareholder pressure. Your goal is to make an oven that works for most customers as cheaply as possible. You realize most of your American customers live in houses that are temperature-controlled to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

So, you start optimizing your oven to work in a 75 degree Fahrenheit environment. You rip out insulation. You install a temperature control system which works in a narrow range. You adjust the natural gas valve so that, instead of being durable enough to switch on and off repeatedly, it delivers a constant stream of gas.

Now you take that oven and put it in the Arab desert during summer and bake some bread. It will always produce a burnt loaf of bread because that oven is hyper-optimized to work in one environment - there isn’t any slack in the system.

I worry that the U.S. food system is like that oven and the Arab desert is the current COVID-19 epidemic. Driving shareholder value has produced a system which is hyper-optimized to produce bread in one environment which has suddenly been subjected to a wildly different environment.

I suspect this analogy holds for most hyper-optimized systems in the U.S. economy, but the food supply is acutely worrying.