Solving the World’s Problems

Solving the World’s Problems

This week’s theme is perceptions of engineers and engineering, and obviously I’m biased. My perception of engineers and engineering is that we make the world better and, through our thought processes, we can save the world.

Now some of you are probably thinking, “Hmmm, engineers do create nifty gadgets and build things that save lives, so even though I’m not an engineer, I agree that you make the world better. But save the world? That’s far-fetched.” However, I’m not talking about your cell phone or a MRI scanner. I’m talking about saving the world in a political sense.

That’s right, if you replaced Congress with 435 engineers in the House and another 100 in the Senate, you’d save the world.

I’ll pause for effect…

And I’m not talking rockstar engineers. But if you take normal, working class engineers with working class families, you would solve most of the issues that hold our country hostage. I’m not going to lie; I skew Left but I’m willing to make a deal. That’s what engineers do. They lay out the options, look at the problems, look at the correlations to other problems (for instance, we can’t have universal electronic medical records because of abortion politics), and ultimately find ways to solve the problem. Most importantly, engineers learn how to compromise. That’s something you don’t see professional politicians do often. Every project we’ve worked on has had some tradeoff of size vs speed vs cost vs performance.

Politics is no different.

The problem in the political spectrum and thought process is that the people (and politicians) want laws that solve problems 100% of the time. In real world (at least in the engineering world), things aren’t 100%. In fact, probably most people will take an incremental improvement on a few things and be satisfied with something that solves the problem 80% of the time.

For instance, let’s tackle guns like an engineer would. I’m not a fan of guns but I get that people want to hunt. But I’m willing to say you can have your rifles but first you must go through a thorough check (background, mental, and physical) and be registered in a non-swiss-cheese-like federal database (ie: that gun tied to your SSN or something like that). Righties hate Big Brother (that background check, database, etc) and Lefties hate guns. But it’s a possible compromise. And it’s not a 100% compromise, it’s only a 60% compromise; you still have those handguns out there. But it’s a start.

Want another one? How about taxes? I’ll give the rich a lower overall tax rate, but they can’t claim any exemptions or tax breaks. Same goes for GE and every other Fortune 500. No exemptions for children, for homeowners, charities, etc. Yes, I’m screwing the middle class too. NO EXCEPTIONS. Everyone and every corporation pays their X%. Once again though, that’s not a 100% compromise, maybe only 75%. How do you then give incentives for R&D? Not sure yet but it shouldn’t be linked to taxes.

Medical costs? There’s soooo many tradeoffs in this sector. I don’t even know where to begin. How about this one? Why not trade limits on punitive damages to 100% of the physical cost for a lawsuit for lower insurance costs for doctors with the savings passed on to the patients. Doesn’t solve everything, but it’s a step in the right direction.

And my last one for now, Special Interests in DC. Most normal people hate how lawmakers spend 95% of their time fundraising and campaigning and no time making compromises. How about trading longer terms in Congress (say 6 years for the House and 10 years for the Senate) for term limits, 2 for the House, 1 for the Senate. If you had to worry about losing your job every 2 years, you’d be paranoid and afraid to make a tough decision that backfires. But if you didn’t have to worry about campaigning all the time, you could make some tough decisions and have the time in office to see it through without getting thrown out. Plus, you wouldn’t have to fundraise 24-7. You could spend more time listening to your constituents, make deals, and most importantly, solve problems. Still doesn’t totally remove special interests, but it’s a 90% solution.

Look, I totally get that people will think I’m arrogant for thinking and saying this. Honestly, I don’t really care. Because that’s what engineers do all day, every day. They have a problem. They have to come up with a solution. They can’t have their cake and eat it too, so they need to compromise. And since we mostly work in teams, you’re not going to be happy 100% of the time. But let’s face it, even if you’re not 100% in love with that widget you helped create, you can be proud of it when it comes off the assembly line. You may say, “I wish we decided to go with the bells instead of the whistle.” But something is better than nothing.

Politics is no different. Society has problems. We need solutions. Maybe we should let a group of engineers tackle it for a change. Maybe this is just my perception of engineers, but it is what we do.


This is so rational and considered that there’s no way it will fly! But seriously… great post… we can’t save the world overnight but a steady drum beat could make a difference over time.

I was talking with Moshe Kam IEEE’s president today and posed this same issue. Now, he’s got a lot of fish to fry running an international organization, but he acknowledge immediately this is a huge problem in the U.S.

Maybe there’s momentum within our culture… there aren’t a lot of pocket-protector jokes any more and TV has created a number of programs (“Numbers” for instance) with science hook… Now we need some political candidates. But engineers being engineers, who would be irrational enough to run?

We would need one or two sacrificial, charismatic politician/engineers that could get in there and pave the way for later engineers. Make the changes required (mandatory math tests?) to allow for later rational thought. But honestly, who would want to be anything BUT sacrificial politicians?

I think this is a great idea, and actually good for this country, or probably any other one that is in a similar situation. I think this works in a great, the way the world should be way, but as far as the way it is, this probably isn’t going to drive news ratings as much as polarizing the country around two teams, and punishing us with it being, us or them, as to what can be done. And the term length/limit idea, that is something that needs to be done, politics is in a habitual cycle of reelection periods, again it drives news ratings, as its the only time it seems to get people interested. Engineers would be great at this, they have to create products that actually work. Unfortunately, like politics, it seems marketing gets all the glory. I think that is something that needs to change in the people. Like the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink it.

So GEARS, it seems you want the US to become China.

Quote from somewhere on the interwebs: That China is heavily technocratic is well established: see the work of Li Cheng (Cheng Li) and Lynn White (1990), “Elite Transformation and Modern Change in Mainland China and Taiwan: Empirical Data and the Theory of Technocracy” and other studies by Cheng, which demonstrate the rather astonishing extent to which the Chinese political elite is dominated by technocrats. The authors looked at mayors and Party secretaries of cities of over a million (of which there are today some 165); governors and provincial Party secretaries of China’s provinces, autonomous regions, and province-level municipalities; and Central Committee members, and found that by the time of writing there were already more than 80% technocrats (that is, putative or actual office holders with four-year degrees or more in the natural sciences or engineering).

Well, Brian, I do know there are some Reps and Senators that are engineers. But most are probably lawyers… Actually, just thinking about that really saddened me. Because lawyers don’t really work to get things done, they work to work (and bill hours).

Until you get the people to accept that 80% (or even 50%) solutions are better than no solution, no engineer in their right mind would do it.

jrspruitt, I totally hear you. If you can’t market it, no one will buy [into] it.

I was expecting that Fluxor. But some might say we are already owned by the Chinese. And if we aren’t, we are surely on the the fast track to being owned by them… I know it’s a pessimistic view, but how many people are really optimistic about the way society (and government) is running right now?

All this being talk about Americans being “owned” by the Chinese is just hoi polloi hyperbole. Besides, us Canadians and our dirty tar sands oil will own you guys before China does. 😉 By the way, I think the Chinese engineering political elite is doing a fine job of running their country. Long on pragmatism, short on ideology.

Part of the reason for that is because the ideology is somewhat built into the culture. We don’t have that in the US, and I imagine it would change how things are done even if we did have engineers running gov’t.

I would not say compromise as much as ‘trade off’. Compromising may not always have a positive out come. However a trade off seeks to maximize the best solution given the constraints. Egineers are constantly working trade studies whether we know it or not.

Instead of term limits for Congress, why not return to a system where the legislature is not a full time body requiring its members to treat their positions as full time jobs that need to be saved every few years. Provide only a moderate stipend to cover the basic costs of doing the job (much like a grad school stipend does), no health benefits or pensions; essentially requiring each Member to hold some kind of gainful employment outside of the elected office. If it’s full of engineers, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Keeps Members with a foot in the reality that is day-to-day living. It would save a lot of money too.

I’m not totally convinced that’s going to work. It would give a severe case of divided loyalties. But I do believe the Founding Fathers (and their wives) intended for people serve for a period of time before going back to their normal life. When I hear the words “Career Politician”, I want to just punch them.

Part of the issue with everyman style compensation is it increases the probability of corruption and under the table dealings multifold. Ie, when the politician is in survival mode, near any type of carrot is massively alluring… sooner or later things will crash. Granted, if one is massively greedy, it wont matter anyhow, but I think the current comp structure at least helps a little bit.

Having worked in Washington DC and on global development issues for almost 30 years, I am now of the opinion that a well-rounded engineer would be better for governance not only of America, but of the global commons institutions charged with the responsibility of trying to save our world. Let me qualify well-rounded by explaining that to mean – an engineer who is also educated in the liberal arts and other social development fields and thus is better able to be a part of a governing body responsible for complex issues. The economists and lawyers who delude themselves and many of the rest of us into treating them as the grand architects of human endeavor is why we are in the mess we are in now. If Congress had more engineers and less lawyers, we would also be able to solve more of the problems and get some traction on the need for greening this economy. Finally, I agree that China is demonstrating why having more technocrats at the helm of our ship PAX AMERICA may make more sense than what we have now. Having visited China, I have to say some more of us need to visit to see what more pragmatism and less emotionalism would help us feed the hungry and homeless while keeping America as the great experiment in human self-actualization that it is.

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