Friday, October 07, 2011

The Final Answer: You are BOTH Crazy

There was a bit of a kerfuffle over this comic, by Zach Weiner.

Everyone, including me, was sure that the comic was mocking whoever we were not. Economists laughed that philosophers were so ridiculous, and philosophers thought it funny that economists were so shallow and arrogant. Jacob was sure he knew, for example. But then to be fair a few folks, at least, over here thought that the philosopher was ridiculous.

At KPC we want to KNOW. So I wrote to Zach W himself. And the answer is... you people are ALL crazy. And hilarious. (quotes with permission)

As to the joke: If it went right, hopefully it made fun of both. I actually did a similar treatment of philosophy vs. engineering a while back here:

In that one, hopefully it's clear that the engineer is simplifying in a way that is both informative and problematic. Since Economists are essentially engineers who work with human lives instead of mechanical systems, the perspective is more or less the same.

Curiously, it was popular in both the economics forum and the philosophy forum. The former thought it was making fun of philosophers for being useless, and the latter thought it was making fun of economists for lacking a sense of profundity.

So yeah, making fun of everyone. Zach Weiner, SMBC

My own conclusion: the Philosophers are not interested in an answer, really. If faced with this real life situation where a decision is required would either respond purely emotionally or else would lie on their backs and kick their little legs in the air, hoping that the problem will go away. Philosophers and grandma both die, because Philosophers aren't interested in answers, only questions.

The Economists would save the Mona Lisa, and spend the rest of their lives trying to forget the haunting screams of the grandma as they carried the Mona Lisa out of the room.

But the problem with policy analysis generally is you don't get to say, "I don't know." You have to do something, you simply must. Philosphers spend all their time wondering if they can get both thumbs up their butt at the same time, or if they have to take turns. Economists spend just a very brief time figuring out "the answer," which is always wrong, and then they pretend they already knew that.

1 comment:

SF said...

Let me say first that I'm not an economist, and I'd probably chose the old lady in that situation.

That said, it's really hard to believe how many people seem to think a utility function where a human life is more valuable than anything else is so obviously right that anyone who holds a different view should be mocked.

I mean, what if you're choosing between saving an art museum currently housing all the portable works of da Vinci, Van Gogh, Monet, and Picasso, and on the other hand, saving a mass murderer in the final stages of terminal cancer? And contrawise, if the life of human strangers is infinitely valuable, why the hell did you just buy a new TV set when that money could have been used to help save lives in an utterly destitute third-world country?