Saturday, September 6, 2008

Philosophy Conference

I spent most of the day Friday at an international conference on
environmental ethics organized by our philosophy department.
They had people from all over the world giving presentations. There
was a wide range of people, from Al Gore disciples to people who
actually work on environmental restoration projects.

Some of the presentations were professors reading pure philosophy
papers, with dense jargon and big words. The surprising and amusing
thing was that I was able to follow these, and that some were quite
good. High-quality philosophy is a lot like computer programming or a
math proof: you start with definitions and then use them in a logical
sequence to achieve a result.

Others were more of a business presentation, showing what people had
done and how to do things more effectiely. One was about the Savannah
River, and one was about Dutch river management system. Of course,
they used PowerPoint. However, some of the other presentations were,
in my mind, pointless and juvenile, the kind of thing you might expect
in a high school public speaking class.

I was there for two reasons. First, it was interesting and I wanted
to learn stuff. Second, I was there to attempt economic damage
control. Many people, especially environmentalists, think that they
have a right to do economics without a license, and some of their
ideas were alarming indeed. I have learned how to talk to
philosophers, so I did my best to add some sense in the question
periods and discussions.

Sometimes, I was not necessary. When one guy started talking about
extending China's one-child policy to India, the women in the crowd
ripped him to pieces (Not literally, although that would have improved
the world*.)

At dinner, I had a long talk with a small group of people. I
explained the basic assumptions behind economic analysis**, and did my
best to dispel misconceptions***. I think it went pretty well. Here
are some paraphrased conversation moments:

Philosopher: "So, what area are you focusing on? I assume that you
might specialize in, for example, analysis of Adam Smith."
Me: "No, economists don't focus our studies by authors, like
philosophers do. Our categories are based on categories of real-world
appliciation, like Industrial Organization or Public Policy."

Philosopher: "So why would you even want to be an economist? You
never seem to generate new ideas or think about what a perfect world
should be like. All you do is look at what people do and analyze it."
Me: "An economist has the knowledge to help you put your ideas into
practice without screwing up the world. We know about unintended
consequences, like with rent control..."

Rent control is always a good talking point. People know that it was
put in place with good intentions, and they usually know how bad it is
in practice. It is easy to make the connection between that and
environmental policies.

*This is not just me being snarky or sadistic. I am simply applying
his philosophy to his own existence.

**Economists are agnostic about what people want or how they should
think. We simply take preferences as given, and show how to let
everyone achieve their desires in the most efficient manner. I fully
support the philosophers' desire to make people less materialistic so
that they value community and environment over random junk, but
changing desires is outside the scope of my field.

***Lots of people think that corporations are powerful, evil things.
I explained that, unlike governments, corporations have zero power
over you. The only way they can get money is if you decide to give
them money. All corporations are simply appendages of popular will,
the result of people voting with their wallets.

You can tell that I have spent too must time around philosophers.
This blog entry has entirely too many parenthetical comments and
footnotes :-)

1 comment:

Dylan Bruns said...

Make the world perfect? Ah yes, the root of Fascism, Communism, and Jihad.