Engineering the economy’s soft landing, derisking investments, ensuring large systems fail gracefully, and other ways to slice clouds in half

–Engineers talk about the need for large hazardous systems to “fail gracefully.” That assumes a degree of control over technological failure as it is happening and, as far as I can tell, there is nothing “graceful” about a large technical system failing right now.

So what?

–It’s not just the sheer hubris expressed in phrases like “engineering a soft landing of the economy.” It’s not just the idiocy of thinking investments can be “derisked” through public sector support (fiscal, monetary and regulatory).

It means that even anti-utopians have been delusional at times. Karl Popper, philosopher, was known for contrasting Utopian engineering with what he called the more realistic approach of piecemeal engineering:

It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it is practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance. . . If they go wrong, the damage is not very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult. They are less risky, and for this very reason less controversial.

If they go wrong, the damage is not very great”!? It’s the case that blueprints for piecemeal health insurance–and educational reform, government budgeting and financial deregulation, for that matter–have also been damaging. Utopian engineering is the least of our problems here.

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