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Business Lesson From the Vietnam War

Posted by on | April 12, 2018 | Comments Off

I just finished watching the PBS series on the Vietnam War and found the experience powerful and educational.  My only disappointment was that every soldier they interviewed and followed through the war ended up in the anti-war movement (or in the case of one POW, his wife did).  I agree with their perspective, and see the whole war as a giant waste, but unlike most people on campus nowadays, I like hearing from people with points of view that are different than mine.  I get nervous just having my expectations reinforced.  Surely there are veterans who thought the war was winnable and the US largely honorable — I know some of these folks — but we really do not get to hear their voices very often.   But with this proviso, the series was terrific.

One of the most important — and hardest — lessons of business is to think at the margin.  Perhaps the toughest corollary to this is: Sunk costs are sunk.  I don’t care how much we have already spent on that factory — that money is gone — if it is going to take another $100 million to finish, are the benefits of the factory worth that $100 million? If not let’s stop work on it no matter how much has already been spent.   I have worked to teach this to my wife.  I don’t care how much the tickets for the show on Sunday night cost — that money is gone — isthe enjoyment we expect to get from the show worth the remaining costs we face (getting in the car, fighting for parking, etc)?

Transit projects thrive on the sunk cost fallacy.  Agencies explicitly try to get some money, spend it, and then claim the rest of the money has to be spent because we have already “invested so much”.  Here is an example:

But what is really amazing is that Chicago embarked on building a $320 million downtown station for the project without even a plan for the rest of the line – no design, no route, no land acquisition, no appropriation, no cost estimate, nothing.  There are currently tracks running near the station to the airport, but there are no passing sidings on these tracks, making it impossible for express and local trains to share the same track.  The express service idea would either require an extensive rebuilding of the entire current line using signaling and switching technologies that may not (according to Daley himself) even exist, or it requires an entirely new line cut through some of the densest urban environments in the country.  Even this critical decision on basic approach was not made before they started construction on the station, and in fact still has not been made.

Though the article does not mention it, this strikes me as a typical commuter rail strategy — make some kind of toe-in-the-water investment on a less-than-critical-mass part of the system, and then use that as leverage with voters to approve funding so that the original investment will not be orphaned.

It amazes me that no politician in California has shut down the insane California high speed rail project, but I will bet you any amount of money that when they do the rail agency will be screaming that it can’t be shut down because they have already spent billions of dollars and shutting them down would waste all that money.  Sorry, but that money has already been wasted, the point is to avoid all the additional money that will be wasted going forward.

The government decision-making around the Vietnam War seemed like nothing so much as a series of sunk cost fallacies.  We can’t give up now, not after so many brave men have already died!  That last sentence could be the title of about half the episodes.   But sunk costs shouldn’t matter in a go-forward decision — but they do matter to ego and prestige.  Politicians talk about things like “the nation’s honor” but what really matters at its heart is their own ego and perception.  Abandoning sunk costs, for the real humans making decisions (whether Presidents or CEOs) is about confessing past errors of judgment.  Its a hard thing to do, so hard a lot of extra people had to die in Vietnam before it could happen.  I can’t find a transcript but Kissinger had some amazing quotes in Episode 9 that pretty baldly outline this problem.

 

 

 Business Lesson From the Vietnam War  Business Lesson From the Vietnam War  Business Lesson From the Vietnam War

 Business Lesson From the Vietnam War

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