Economies of scale: How one person starts an avalanche

by Penny Robo

Penny Robo

“Why are all these people coming forward now?”

“Where were they before?”

“How come nobody said a thing till someone else did first?”

The idea is this: a famous person has an accusation of misconduct thrown their way, typically on the eve of an important event or sudden increase of power or social capital, and in its wake a number of other accusations come into the light as well. For many, the response is to write them off. If there were problems before, we’d have heard about them before, right? But there’s a component that many don’t understand, willfully or no, that factors into why these things come in waves instead of trickles.

Look at what happens to someone who accuses a famous person of wrongdoing: their lives are thrown into disarray. Their pasts are unearthed and examined while their motives are questioned. They’re hounded by journalists, called into courts, their names are splashed all over newspapers and their personal lives are on public display. They risk career and livelihood, become the targets of harassment campaigns, and are put through stressful situations for a period of time nobody could calculate or account for… their lives as they know them end for a long period of time, possibly to never return to normal.

The risk, the stress, the upheaval, all are enormous. There’s no simple or easy way to go about doing such a thing and so, quite often, the revelation of their experiences comes as the accused is set to climb higher within the social hierarchy and the victim feels that this is perhaps their only opportunity to make sure the truth is known, consequences be damned.

While that may explain that first accusation to come out, what about the answers to those initial questions regarding all the others that appear afterward? In practice, it’s really quite simple if you’ll permit me an allegory and step away from the politics to instead look at another facet of daily life in our world, something called “economies of scale”. It’s a common term in manufacturing and other industries and basically describes how, typically speaking, the more you make of something the cheaper it is to produce.

Now, when you make a product you need to account for a great many things, but let’s focus on just one aspect of just one product, so how about we look at… toothbrushes? On top of the costs for raw materials and packaging and shipping, you also need to pay for the actual machine that makes the brushes from the raw materials. Let’s say that that fancy machine cost you $10,000. You want to pay off the machine, so if you make 1,000 brushes with it then you need to add $10 to the price of each one to break even. But if you make 10,000 brushes instead, then breaking even means adding only $1 to the price. And if you make a whopping 100,000 brushes, paying for that machine means only 10 cents must be added to the price of each.

By simply making more, that $10 premium has become 10¢. Economies of scale means that the more there is of something, the less loss there is to procure it.

And that is, in an ugly and undignifying way, the reason we see sudden surges of accusations. One woman coming forward has to suffer through a seemingly endless barrage of character assassination and chaos and uncertainty over her future… 10 women coming forward can share that loss. The personal danger and fear can be spread across more people, each one can suffer less, each one feels less like the linchpin holding together the efforts to make someone accountable for the actions. The more people that come forward, the more safe they feel in not having their lives and reputations destroyed as a result.

Coming after a famous abuser often means that the victim must suffer a whole new indignity all over again… knowing that they’re not alone means a great deal in mitigating how damaging the ordeal will be for them.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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One Response to Economies of scale: How one person starts an avalanche

  1. Donald R Barber says:

    That is an excellent point. Too often it becomes easy to assume that everyone wants to become famous for 15 minutes. So we discount that someone like,say, Anita Hill, really wasn’t comfortable becoming the spokesperson for sexual harassment victims. But at a certain point you can’t ignore the price others pay for your silence.

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