When high reliability is not a trade-off


Yes, the reliability of financial services (or such) has been treated as if it can be traded off against some service attribute like the cost or frequency of transactions. In sharp contrast, the high reliability of critical infrastructures (for energy and water, by way of example) is a state condition without which there would be no markets in real time.

Economics assumes a theory of substitutability, where goods and services have alternatives in the marketplace; infrastructure reliability assumes a theory of nonfungibility, where nothing can substitute for the high reliability without which there would be no markets for goods and services, at least for right now when selecting among those alternative goods and services. There is a point at which high reliability and trade-offs are immiscible, like trying to mix oil and water. (Engineers also mislead by insisting high reliability is the probability that the system will not fail. High reliability by being nonfungible at a point is by definition deterministic and not a probability or probability distribution.)


Economic wherewithal is of course patently important to producing high reliability. When we asked one natural gas professional what were the reasons why his complicated operations were so reliable, he saw no need for more than one word, “Money.” There’s lots of money making sure jet A-1 fuel gets to the airplanes and keeps them in the air. But here too there is a point at which the high reliability and safety of his facilities and like ones can’t be traded-off against other factors, such as cost-savings. It’s highly reliable or it isn’t.

One way of thinking about reliability’s nonfungibility is that it’s irrecuperable economically in real time; it cannot be cashed out in dollars and cents in the here-and-now without it becoming different from high reliability. Real time, from this perspective, is an impassable, obdurate obstacle to monetizing tasks then and there by the control operators undertaking the managing. Which is to say, if you were to enter the market and arbitrage a price for high reliability of critical infrastructures, the markets transactions would be such you’d never be sure you’re getting what you thought you were buying.

Not only is nonfungibility of high reliability anterior to and foundational for market competition; its real time is not constructed so as to be reflected upon for compensation’s sake at a distance and later on.

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