Costs/Benefits

Posted by Mike

Have you ever thought that perhaps everything that we do, every move we make, has costs and benefits. I’m thinking about everything, from actions of limited value one way or another, like answering the telephone or washing the dishes, to acts that not only affect the decider, but that affect perhaps even millions of people, like going to war. In actuality the ratio is rather unfairly weighted, as there are costs associated with all action, but not necessarily any benefits.

Regarding costs, I’m not thinking necessarily of anything monetary, but of costs in terms of time used, energy used, potential losses. Let’s have a simple example: It’s Sunday afternoon and I want a cup of coffee, but discover there’s no coffee in the house. I’m determined to have some coffee, so I hop in the car and drive down to my neighborhood grocery, purchase my coffee, return home, and brew a pot. What are the costs here? Aside from the cost of the coffee, which we’re not considering as significant, there is the time and energy used, attention diverted, and loss of time, energy, and attention that could be used to some other purpose. The benefits? Having the satisfaction of being able to make that pot of coffee and drink it that Sunday afternoon. And I’m thinking that the emotional benefits in this case likely clearly outweigh the costs. Of course in virtually all cases, when you look at the costs and then look at the benefits of an action, it’s impossible to do a formal mathematical comparison; it’s often like trying to compare apples and oranges. Nevertheless, taking a look at the cost factors and benefit factors can often be useful, even if we can’t have a neat concise mathematical process and end with a tidy quotient.

The truth is that it is likely that we unconsciously assess costs and benefits most any time we consider taking an action of any sort. We even think to ourselves at times, “Is it worth it?” – that is, is it worth doing whatever it is that we are considering. It’s really amazing how so much of our assessing and decision-making like this occurs unconsciously. Not that we are capable of unconsciously assessing or of even being aware of all of the costs and benefits of a particular action or course of action. The more complex the action planned or executed, the more variables  have to be taken into account in order to come to a decision. As actions become more complex, it becomes completely impossible to think of all the contingencies, so we must and we do come to general hypothetical conclusions regarding the costs/benefits of a particular action. We make a decision, and then act one way or another on that decision; we likely don’t proceed if we decide that the costs outweigh the benefits.  I should really say potential benefits, because we’re talking about the future, something that hasn’t happened yet; so we can only hypothesize outcomes, and for many actions there are such a multitude of intervening variables that it would be impossible to imagine them all; thus prospective outcomes can only be hypothetical, informed guesses.

Possibly you think I am making a simple idea too complex. You say, “Of course we weigh potential outcomes, you dummy, but why make a simple thing so complex?” You’ve got a point. We certainly don’t want to be obsessive regarding the multitude of simple decisions we make daily. Such obsessiveness itself would be a hindrance to functioning, as it is in obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am only suggesting that as individuals, families, groups, and even nations, at times more formal consideration of the costs versus the benefits of action can be very helpful. Oh, regarding that coffee purchase, thank goodness I didn’t have an accident on the way to the store, or leave my wallet on the store counter, or walk into a plate glass door! With all the experts in Washington weighing pros and cons and the costs and benefits, were they all out having coffee when the last Administration tricked Congress into agreeing to the disastrous Iraq conflict, or when the Johnson Administration got us into the murderous the Vietnam War?

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