Friday, January 04, 2008

The Politics of Engineering

Curious Cat:

Politics of engineering by Patrick Mannion, EE Times:

Engineering interests historically haven’t been at the forefront of the political debate, at least not compared with those of, say, farming, law or health care. But given the importance of the technological advances that engineers help effect and the need to maintain our competitive edge in a rapidly changing global environment, that situation needs to change, and fast.

Then came word of the $25 billion being handed to farmers in yet another subsidy, loudly denounced by some as welfare for the wealthy. I’m not going to get into the right or wrong of the subsidies–but I am amazed at the ability of agribusiness to get them at all. It shows the power of the farm lobby. Ditto for pharmaceuticals, HMOs, lawyers, “big oil” and so on. It underscores the relative political weakness of the engineering community.

If the science and engineering community are not well represented to our representatives the interests of the science and engineering community will get short changed. Especially since so few politicians in the USA have even a basic understanding of science and the scientific method. And a very small percentage have any advanced degrees in science and engineering fields or work experience in them. That being said the political arena is much like a tar pit: that is it is difficult to interact with without becoming entangled in a big mess. And it is not as though the scientific and engineering community are even close to unified but still the impact of political decisions is very significant and science and engineering leaders need to be heard.

The post above seems to lament that technology is not subsidized the way farming and other industries are. Yet technology is the one area where America particularly shines. The unstated assumption in the commentary is that subsidizing technological development and more political involvement of engineers and scientists would improve the pace of technology in the US. As an engineer turned economist, I would posit that it would have precisely the opposite effect.

Public funding typically leads to political control, regulation, bureaucratization, and lack of flexibility in any area it touches. For technology to develop at the fastest rate, it has to be able to change quickly and stay dynamic. The more this is process is handled through private funding and market forces, the better able it is to respond to changing environments. Contrast the development of the computer industry (little regulation) to that of railroads or electrical power generation (highly regulated). The synergies, dynamism, and high rate of innovation of the Internet are indicative of how much human creativity can be unleashed when it is not interfered with by government forces.

The post continues by contrasting the lack of engineers in American politics to the quantity of them in China's government:

China’s Economic Science Experiment - China’s 9 most senior government official are all engineers (in 2006 - I am not sure now):

When China’s leaders meet with Hu each week in Beijing’s government district, Zhongnanhai, they could spend hours discussing cables, switches, tool-making machines and control devices. That’s because every one of them has a degree in engineering. The president himself, the son of a tea merchant from Jiangsu Province, trained to build hydroelectric power stations, while the others hold degrees in electrical engineering, metallurgy and geology.

Hmm... if China's government is an example of what happens when you put engineers in charge, let's keep all the engineers away from power.

Speaking as an engineer myself, I think if you put most engineers in charge of running a country, they would view the economy and social development of a country as a system to be tweaked, adjusted, and tuned for optimal performance. They'd be prime candidates for overvaluing the capability of intelligence, what Hayek called the Fatal Conceit.

Engineers tend to be phenomenal problem solvers. Unfortunately, that trait would make them particularly dangerous as politicians.

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