A Lesson From Totality

Posted by Joseph Phillips on Monday, August 28, 2017 at 7:58 AM PDT


I learned a valuable lesson from Totality. Along with many others, I headed to Oregon on August 21st to observe the full eclipse that went streaking across the US that day. Skies were crystal clear in the Willamette Valley, perfect for viewing the eclipse. As the moon gradually edged in front of the sun, it began to grow darker and colder. Soon there was just a sliver of orange peaking around the moon, and then -- there was totality! The sun was a dark blue globe surrounded by a shimmering white border that streaked out in different directions. It was amazing!

And what it taught me was the difference that 1% can make. Going from 99% blockage to 100% changed everything. Totality looks nothing like 99% -- or 95% or 90% for that matter. That last 1% makes all the difference.

As an economist, I am always analyzing things at the margin. I am always doing the cost-benefit analysis. I am always measuring the marginal benefit against the marginal cost.

It doesn't work with a full eclipse. It is the last one percent that provides the most gain, not the first one or ten or twenty percent, as we might normally presume. There is supposed to be declining marginal utility to any activity -- not true when it comes to the full eclipse!

We are often told to give 100% of ourselves to whatever we do, or better yet 110%! An economist would listen to that and wonder whether 95% or 99% would do, since the last bit of effort will be subject to diminishing returns. But that could be a mistake! What if that last 1% of effort makes all the difference, just like in a full eclipse? What if going that extra mile really is the difference between a huge success and a mediocre result or even a failure?

I am changing the way I am looking at things. Efficiency is important, but I can't always assume that the last one percent of effort will yield only minor benefits. The payoff could be huge, just like it is in Totality!