Economists and Engineers

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Professionals annual conference at Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort in the Delaware Water Gap.  It was a lovely setting and a great group.  I think I particularly had fun because this group of engineers, biologists, planners, and architects share my analytical approach to things and my respect for trade-offs.

The notion of trade-offs is very important to an economist, and girds my general desire to approach things in as impartial and balanced a way as possible.  Sometimes I feel I have to apologize for this, such as when I am speaking to a group of advocates, who are necessarily predisposed about a topic, hoping others will be similarly inclined, and often less attuned to the notion of trade-offs.

(Example: how many times have you heard a group lobby for more funding for their issue in the following manner: A is a good thing, we need money to do A, therefore we should fund A.  In the real world, funding A often takes money away from other things.  And, funding A may lead to unintended consequences that counteract the benefits of A.  But in a world in which trade-offs aren't accounted for, one needn't worry about such nuisances.)

I quickly surmised there was no need to apologize to this crowd.  They too valued that life was about trade-offs.  For example, I attended a fascinating seminar on green streets, and was impressed with the thoughtfulness with which the presenters wrestled with trade-offs associated with implementing green elements at the street level.  They inherently understood that there was a balancing act on issues of costs, aesthetics, functionality, safety, and ease of implementation, and they talked through with us how they arrived at satisfactory solutions that weighed those things appropriately.

Many of my fellow attendees were respectful of the role of us economists, which I appreciated, and the feeling is mutual from my end.  We may be wired different, and have different parts to play on these issues, but it was neat to find some broad points of agreement among this group.

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