By Nathan Barton
I am an engineer, and I am involved, oddly enough, in politics. This is, in both American and world history, a fairly rare situation. Look at the rosters of Congress and of State legislatures, and you will find few engineers: lots of lawyers (of course) and medical doctors and educators and now and then a few (career) soldiers, but not many engineers. There are only two engineers who were elected president, or so it is claimed. In reality, Hoover was a career bureaucrat and politician, and Carter was (besides an embarrassment) an engineer in the way that a train or other operating engineer is: most Navy “nuclear” engineers are not really engineers: they service and operate the equipment; they do not design and seldom solve problems.
And that is the reason I think that few engineers are in politics. Engineers exist to solve problems: we thrive on solving problems. Politicians CREATE problems, thrive on always HAVING problems which are never solved, lest our “need” for them go away. Engineers look at a situation, a problem, and break it down into LITTLE problems which can each be solved and be part of the solution of the BIG problem. Politicians delight in taking small issues, problems, and treating them like small lengths of string, tie them together and then weave them into a big ball of string: a great big huge problem that no one can untangle, but which will let them cozen their clientele that with a lot more money (taxing, borrowing, and spending) and a wee bit more time (another term or two) the problem will ALL be solved. That kind of “logic” is disgusting to an engineer, who is expected by a client (customer) to SOLVE their problem, one piece at a time: stop the flooding, stop the erosion, provide a factory or office or road, etc.
Engineers are practical people: we want things to WORK. We know the world isn’t perfect, any more than the materials we work with are perfect. We know that we cannot quantify everything (but we try). Most important: WE SOLVE PROBLEMS.
ALL engineering solutions are “ballpark” solutions in most ways: it is impossible to evaluate all of the variables, so we do the best we can to assume and to quantify. It is one reason that engineering has the concept of “Factors of Safety” – because in the real world of construction (and demolition), it is impossible to accurately and completely take all of the variables into consideration.
On the other hand, politicians want UTOPIA: everything and everyone in the perfect place – perfect for THEIR power and wealth and prestige and “place in history.” They are convinced that if they say the exact right words, pass the right laws, force people to do what they want them to do, that utopia and paradise will result.
Timing is often of the essence in engineering – a perfect answer two hours late is a worthless answer. A close approximation – as accurate and complete as possible – on time saves lives and dollars. So ballpark answers ARE commonplace in the real world. At least, the real world of engineering.
Politicians want to take as long as possible to consider every possible alternative and let things “develop” and “evolve.” They delight in putting off decisions, and taking a long time to work on a problem.
To give some idea regarding the different way engineers approach things, consider testing. As with many professions, engineers must take (and pass!) qualification examinations to demonstrate their proficiencies and knowledge (or how to find the information that they need). This is, of course, totally foreign to virtually ALL government service, especially elected positions: they consider it an insult to be tested or even questioned.
In the next part of this commentary, I’ll look at engineering tests and how that could be applied to those who provide services of the kind that “government” traditionally does. Meanwhile, I appreciate feedback from any engineers reading this: let me know what you think, especially if you disagree.