Jun 16, 2021

The Work Leading Up To The Work

This weekend I heard Stephen Levitt talk to Bruce Friedrich about the externalities of the meat industry. Externalities, in economics are costs that re not priced into the price of a product. This means that they are costs borne by someone outside the market.

The canonical example is a factory that pollutes the environment. The cost to clean up the environment is paid by society, but is not included in the price of the products the factory produces.

In conversation, Stephen and Bruce discovered that while the market price of meat is lower than the price of plant-based and cellular meats, if the market price of meat actually factored in all of its costs (the externalities), the price of meat would be much higher. For example, if we priced in the cost of the amount of CO2 released during meat production accurately, it would increase the price tag at the grocery store.

Another similar example is the increased risk of pandemics due to bacteria and viruses that become resistant to antibiotics given to farm animals, becoming resistant to antibiotics that we take as humans as well. Transcribed (probably poorly) from Bruce on the podcast:

Two other externalities that we should probably engage with are antibiotic resistance, as well as pandemic risk. Of all of the pharmaceutical production of antibiotics, about 70 percent that are produced are fed to farm animals. That is leading to antibiotic resistance. The bacteria figure out how to become "super bugs" as they are dosed with these antibiotics, and then when human beings take antibiotics because they get sick, the super bugs have figured out how to bypass the antibiotics. We have tens of thousands of people dying from antibiotic resistant super bugs every single year. The former president of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, has said that if antibiotics stop working--and we are on a trajectory for them to stop working--that is the end of modern medicine.

The thing I find interesting about this is that in order to make the case for alternative meats, people like Bruce Friedrich and the Good Food Institute first have to find a way to allocate cost to these externalities and socialize those costs. For example, in the example of pricing the cost of CO2 into a hamburger, just developing the methodology to ascribe that cost could be a project in itself. It could take government lobbying, PR and marketing campaigns, and time for mass internalization.

My hunch is that there are many opportunities in these "adjacent" spaces.

As a software engineer, I find a lot of parallels for this "adjacent" work in my career. Build tooling is a perfect example. In order to make this feature fast, I should really optimize my build config for faster feedback. Or, in order to use this language feature, I first have to upgrade my operating system. This "work leading up to the work" can be difficult to justify, and easy to get sucked into. It can make projects and ideas successful, but it can also entirely change, or even destroy them. But to borrow the economics term, this category of work has a crucial role in the "efficient" team.

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