Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

09 September 2014

Engineering America: Making Things Work Again

Once we Yanks were a practical people. We were all, in some sense, engineers. Every one of us.

Our early immigrants had to be engineers. They had settled in a new land, far from home, and they had to be self-reliant.

They came to a new, harsher, and (in the North) much colder land than any they had known. They had no immediate access to the help, technology or manufactures of the societies they had left behind. They had to improvise and invent, in farming, building, and organizing their society. They designed their structures, their farms, their tools, their factories, their gardens, their towns and their communities. And they did it all from scratch.

Those who couldn’t do so perished. We are just now beginning the dig up the lost towns of those who died. Mostly they were people who relied more on prayer and lamentation than their own invention and what they could learn from the native peoples.

Our Founders were also engineers. They had a chance—unique in human history—to design a new human society from the ground up. They grabbed that chance with both hands and open and eager minds.

They didn’t call themselves “social engineers” because that term didn’t exist in Colonial times. But that’s exactly what they were, and quite self-consciously so.

They studied the ancient democracies of Greece and Rome and what made them rise and fall. They tried hard to duplicate what worked well and to avoid or suppress what didn’t, including the lust for empire and what they called the “evil of faction,” i.e., partisanship. They did their utmost to use social engineering to suppress and control the dark impulses of human nature with formal rules, such as checks and balances and the rights in our Bill of Rights.

Like all good engineers, our Founders had to make tradeoffs. They had to meld two utterly different societies—one based on industry and freedom, the other on agriculture and slavery. They did their best. They gave us the odious accounting of slaves as three-fifths of people. And they wrote slavery right into our Constitution, in spite of Jefferson’s admonition that “all Men are created equal.”

But they also gave us less odious tradeoffs. They gave us two Houses of Congress, in one of which every state must have two senators forever, no matter how different they may grow in population, industry, wealth, power, education, intelligence and invention. Our Founders gave each House the right to make its own rules, allowing each to degenerate into minority rule in its own way. And so each has.

This was not our Founders’ fault. Every engine eventually breaks down and fails. Every product of engineering becomes obsolete. The task of new engineers is to fix it, redesign it, or rebuild it. We Yanks haven’t yet even begun that task with our governmental structure. Except for eliminating slavery—which took our bloodiest-ever war, plus one and a half centuries of unremitting struggle (and still counting)—we haven’t yet even seriously noticed that the task needs doing.

Our medical men and women were engineers, too. When Europeans came to this continent, the lower Mississippi Valley and the bayous were cesspools of tropical diseases. They figured out that mosquitoes spread the diseases and cleaned them up with insect control and later insecticides. Learning from England’s engineers, they also cleaned up the diseases of cities, such as cholera, with proper sewage disposal and later flush toilets.

Of course the widest realm of engineering is industry. Many of our greatest industrialists were self-made, becoming engineers without formal education as such. Andrew Carnegie started out as a clerk who saw the efficiency and economic benefits of the Bessemer Converter and cheap steel for a new nation. Thomas Edison was a life-long tinkerer who invented the light bulb, electrical power systems, the phonograph, and motion pictures. The Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics who, all by themselves, invented unique scientific testing machines, including the forerunners of wind tunnels, to test their airfoils to make machines that could fly reliably and under control.

The two Steves who invented the personal computer (Jobs and Wozniak) were in a similar mode. They didn’t invent the microchips and other electronics they used. They didn’t even have the education or training to do that. What they did was take the chips that others developed and put them to a new practical use, thereby developing a whole new industry.

Bill Gates did much the same thing with software. He made software for the machines that IBM modeled on the two Steves’. He did so just a few years after IBM, under legal duress, “unbundled” software for its own much bigger machines, creating a whole new industry and a new field of engineering.

And today we have Elon Musk. In keeping with our more advanced technology, he has a couple of college degrees, in economics and physics. But he dropped out of graduate school after mere days to pursue his business dreams, and he never looked back. He had enough knowledge and intuition as to how things work to create the world’s leading electric car maker and a private space-launch company. Like other engineers, including our Founders, he has the knack of making things work better in the real world.

Now that Jobs is dead and Gates and Wozniak are retired, we should thank our lucky stars that we at least have Musk. For two other types of people are rapidly replacing engineering and practical folk as our society declines.

I speak of the finance man (they are virtually all men) and the “persuader.”

Bankers have always been with us. And so have people who persuade, by means both fair and foul. But never in human history have they been so numerous, so influential, and so pretentious. And never in human history have they claimed whole professions, which purport to be something like engineers.

Finance men differ from bankers in two respects. First, they see their purview as broader than bankers’, who used to serve as little more than auxiliaries to engineers, industrialists, and ordinary people. Today finance men purport to be engineers, too, “engineering” financial “products” and “systems” for the betterment of business.

But finance men’s goals, training and motivation differ radically from real engineers’. They seek not just to make things work better, but to get rich, usually quick. These are the folks whose margin on credit brought us the Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. In a more recent and far more sophisticated incarnation, they are also the folks who brought us secretly-traded derivatives and liars’ loans, the Crash of 2008 and the Great Recession.

The aftermath of their most recent exploit is still with us and may continue for years. Finance men differ from engineers in failing to consider practical consequences after the money hits their pockets.

The persuaders are even more insidious and ubiquitous. They are the ad-makers, “public-relations” folk, political consultants and operatives, and propagandists. They are the ones who tell pols how to “frame” issues, garner votes, and avoid resolving anything. They are the ones who get voters and pols to credit simplistic bumper-sticker ideologies rather than think. They are the ones who, quite self-consciously, try to get opposing voters to stay home on election day, rather than vote intelligently.

They are the ones who are going to avoid any national debate over immigration—and probably over the military crises in Ukraine, the Middle East and North Africa—until after the upcoming midterm elections. Then the lumpen “undecided” will go to sleep again, at least until a few percent of them have to go to war or suffer unemployment to pick up the pieces.

Unlike engineers, these persuaders don’t want to solve problems. They have a single, overriding goal: to keep the people who hired them in power, to sell or whitewash their underperforming selves or defective products, and to bash their political and commercial opponents. In the process, they are demeaning our industry, destroying the trust of voters and consumers that holds society together, and exaggerating the human failings of all public officials to the point that no one will follow them and they cannot function.

To say that these folks work at cross-purposes to engineers would be an understatement of Obamanian proportions. Yet they occupy whole sectors of our economy. They own faculties and departments in all our great universities, where they teach their dark arts. No medieval wizard or alchemist was better situated.

Persuaders sit behind, advise and often control every politician and many chief executives in our society. Why do anything practical and real when you can use techniques that even Goebbels, Stalin and Mao never enjoyed to make people believe you are doing something, regardless of reality, and that your opponents and detractors are scum?

Maybe all this is the Fate of Man. Ancient Rome had its Bread and Circuses, its bald payments to voters, and its nobility-inspired rabble-rousing, including fomented mobs. Rome fell, hard, and several times.

As good social engineers, our Founders tried to avoid the same fate. But how could they predict that, over two centuries hence, our Supreme Court would decide that our First Amendment holds inviolable the “right” of rich people to propagandize the poor and weak-minded, and to systematically destroy the trust that every human society needs to flourish?

Maybe every society reaches a lazy point at which making money by manipulating finance and weaker minds seems preferable to doing anything real. But how we Yanks managed to suffer the fate of Rome in a mere two centuries plus is at least worth some inquiry. It took Rome several centuries. And Britain’s democracy is still going strong eight centuries (next year!) after Magna Carta. Maybe you have to give up your empire, as Britain did, to save your democratic soul.

To end this depressing essay, I’d like to do two things. I’d like show how the problem is not only stark, but at times quite subtle. Then I’d like to suggest a long-shot way out.

The subtlety best appears in the person of Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric. GE is still one of our few remaining excellent industrial companies, a global powerhouse of heavy industrial engineering. Besides Boeing and perhaps 3M, we Yanks have nothing else like it, in generality, size or global influence.

GE is a firm whose wealth, power and influence depends on one thing only: making big things work, i.e. engineering. And Immelt is one of the most influential and widely respected CEOs in all of American industry. Therefore I was astonished when I read his online biography in Businessweek. Immelt has held a large number of leadership positions, but they are mostly in finance, not engineering. As far as one can tell from his bio, his only connection with engineering is a bachelor’s degrees in applied mathematics that he got in 1978.

Lest I be accused of bashing Immelt, whom I generally respect, let me first say that he has done a good job in divesting the scatterbrained accretion of conglomerate junk that GE picked up over the last three decades or so. His latest divestiture, of GE Appliances, was reported just yesterday. Like the others, it will permit GE’s flabby and enormous body to get lean and focus on what everyone agrees it does best: leading-edge and innovative heavy industrial design and manufacturing.

But how did GE get this way? How did it get so fat, flabby and dissipated that it needed more than a decade of divestitures to restore some sense of fitness and mission to its executive suite?

It got that way because its former CEO Jack Welch, although a scientist and engineer by training, made it that way. It got that way because this particular engineer took the gospel of B-school “leadership” and profit above all. And so he became a finance man in all but name.

Under the “legendary” Jack Welch, GE morphed from an industrial engineering powerhouse to a finance company, a real-estate company, and the owner of a television network (NBC). Although a latecomer to the conglomerate gospel, it became a conglomerate less disciplined and more dissipated than many of the most notorious of the seventies. As such, it fell hard when the Crash came. It had to be bailed out to the tune of $139 billion—a once-excellent industrial company that had put several toes in the cold waters of finance and nearly had them frozen off.

There are two morals to this story. The first is that finance is not engineering, especially as it is practiced today. Its primary goal is different: getting rich versus making things work. And its skills are also vastly different: let the smartest banker at Goldman Sachs try to design the simplest electronic or mechanical device, and he will fail.

The second moral is more subtle. Science and engineering are specialized. The more specialized you get, the narrower your perspective.

Maybe Jack Welch’s Ph.D. in chemical engineering made it hard for him to get enthusiastic about smart grids, electric vehicles, and multi-purpose turbines that can be used with natural gas or steam from nuclear power plants. Maybe that’s why he saw finance, real-estate and television—things utterly foreign to his training and presumably his engineering mindset—as so attractive.

Maybe that’s why the greatest industrial innovators, from Edison to the Steves and Musk—have been lightly educated and largely self-taught. Maybe it takes a broad perspective within engineering to see something simple but powerful, like combining chips made for bigger computers to design a personal computer, or combining thousands of laptop lithium batteries to power a car. It definitely takes an engineer’s perspective to see the power of putting all those little batteries in a layer below the axles, in order to lower the center of gravity and make the car fun to drive.

The long-shot way out of our national decline is to bring engineering back hard, in all its forms. There are lots of opportunities for engineering education in this country. And there are still people who have a special knack for making things work. Think of Edison, the Wright Brothers, Steve Jobs and Musk.

We need to pay more attention to the people who have that knack, in politics as in industry. It’s a special skill that we should cherish as our Yankee birthright.

Few finance men have it: the only thing they have in common with engineering is math. And they often fail to understand, or even to know, basic engineering principles like positive feedback, which was what turned their high-frequency trading schemes into the “Flash Crash” of May 2010.

They don’t know these things not because they aren’t smart enough. They are plenty smart, but they don’t give a damn. They just want to make money. That, to put it mildly, is not the goal of engineering.

Persuaders also need not apply. They go into their professions because they don’t have a knack for or any interest in making things work. They want to make others work for them, and not for their own convictions, but for hire. Is it too strong to call them parasites?

If we can somehow bring back the engineers, including the social ones that our Founders, too, were, we might have a chance. Otherwise, the Germans and Chinese will eat our lunch, and none too slowly or delicately.