Thursday, March 24, 2016


One of the underlying issues of the no-excuses charter school thread is the way badly designed, badly maintained metric-based systems can go awry. Arguably the classic example is the Soviet factory producing unusable products to maximize some unrealistic standard.

Here's an account from economist Paul Craig Roberts (It's from American Conservative and I have to admit some doubts about the publications, but Roberts is knowledgeable and the piece seems solid):

For example, the success indicator for the construction industry was the number of projects under construction. Consequently, Moscow was littered with unfinished projects because all activity was concentrated in starting new ones. The plan produced a housing shortage because the incentive was to start new constructions not to complete ones already underway.

If a shoe factory’s gross output indicator was a specified number of pairs of shoes, there would be plenty of baby shoes, but none for large feet, because the same amount of material could be used to produce one large pair or several small pairs.

If nails were specified in number, there would be small nails but no large ones. If specified in terms of weight, there would be assortments weighted heavily with large sizes. A famous Soviet cartoon shows the manager of a nail factory being awarded Hero of the Soviet Union for over-fulfilling his quota. In the factory yard are two giant cranes holding one giant nail.

If light fixtures were specified in number, they would be small. If in weight, they would be heavy. Nikita Khrushchev complained of chandeliers so heavy that “they pull the ceilings down on our heads.”
I dug up the cartoon and (with the help of Google Translate) added an English caption.

" Who needs such a big nail? "
" Do not worry about it. The main thing is that we have met the quota for nails."

1 comment:

  1. Mark:

    This part, "the success indicator for the construction industry was the number of projects under construction," is unpleasantly ironic given that the US is notorious for starting new construction projects and not fixing old ones (with the poster children being the Alaska "bridge to nowhere" and the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis). Bad incentives are not confined to the Soviets. Although one could argue that socialized, other-people's-money-style incentives are the cause of the corresponding American problem of building expensive new stuff and not keeping sturdy old stuff under repair.

    I wonder when is the last time that a major architecture award was given to a repair project?