Economists vs Engineers

For those wandering in here without context, I am advocating a rethinking of economics in the light of sustainability issues in general and climate change in particular.

Consider minutes 4 through 7 of this video of a Google Tech Talk by Van Jacobson.

“It’s not that the solution we have is a bad one, it’s that the problem has changed.”

I’d like to see this sort of breadth of vision coming from economic thinkers. (I’m not saying it never does, of course, but it doesn’t seem that real alternatives bubble to the top the way they do in other applied disciplines.)

If you are a bit technical you will find the rest of the presentation, which goes into detail about these revolutions in the data communication sphere, interesting as well.

Why is there such little prospect of a Copernican revolution in economic thinking? Do people really think that the circumstances of the past two centuries as generalized by economics are invariant? That the system can have no regimes? That there is only one possible correct way of looking at aggregate behavior and that we already have it?

[Update: Yes, apparently some people are perfectly happy to go that far without even a hint of humility. See the comments to this entry. They must have some powerfully compelling evidence and rigorous arguments. It sure would nice to see these.]

Many people think the calling of a scientist is in some way higher than that of the engineer, but frankly I am not at all convinced. Scientists seek truth, and engineers seek solutions. The circumstances we are in require solutions, and so the engineering mentality will be more valuable for the foreseeable future.

We need more pragmatic economics. Ambitious economists ought to let go of this bizarre pretension that the world’s economic system is anything but an artifact, and will start to think about how to redesign it to account for the fact that the problem has changed.