The Engineers and the Political System

Aaron Timms at the Los Angeles Review of Books: “Engineers enjoy a prestige in China that connects them to political power far more directly than in the United States. ….America, by contrast, has historically been governed by lawyers. That remains true today: there are 218 lawyers in Congress and 208 former businesspeople, according to the Congressional Research Service, but only eight engineers. (Science is even more severely underrepresented, with just three members in the House.) It’s unlikely that that balance will tilt meaningfully in favor of STEM-ers in the near term. But in another sense, the growing cultural capital of the engineers will inevitably translate to political power, whatever its form.

The engineering profession today is broad, much broader than it was in 1921 when Thorstein Veblen published The Engineers and the Price System, his classic pamphlet on industrial sabotage and government by technocrats. Engineering has outgrown the four traditional branches (chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical) to include all the professions in which the laws of mathematics and science are applied to real-world problems…..In a way that was never the case for previous generations, engineering today is politics, and politics engineering. Power is coming for the engineers, but are the engineers ready for power?

…tech smarts do not port easily to politics. However violently Silicon Valley pushes the story that it’s here to fix things for all of us, building an algorithm and coming up with intelligent ways to improve society are not the same thing. The triumph of the engineers is that they’ve managed to convince so many people otherwise.

This victory is more than simply economic or mechanical; engineering has also come to permeate the language of politics itself. Zuckerberg’s doe-eyed both-sidesism is the latest expression of the idea, nourished through the Clinton years and the height of the evidence-based policy movement, that facts offer the surest solution to knotty political problems. This is, we already know, a temple built on sand, ignoring as it does the intractably political nature of politics; hence the failure of “figures” and “facts” and “evidence” to do anything to shift positions on gun reform or voter fraud. But it’s a temple with enduring bipartisan appeal, and the engineers have come along at the right moment to give it a fresh lick of paint. If thinking like an engineer is the new way to do business, engineerialism, in politics, is the new centrism — rule by experts remarketed for the innovation age. It might be generations before a Veblenian technocrat calls the White House home, but no presidency can match the power engineers already have — a power to define progress, a power without check….(More)”.