Michael Bloomberg, the Engineer

It was a surprise to learn, from a campaign ad, no less, that Michael Bloomberg is, or at least was, an engineer.  A look at Wikipedia confirms that Bloomberg graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1964 with an electrical engineering degree.  This made me roll my eyes and say a prayer asking that Bloomberg not be allowed anywhere near the White House this coming November or any other.  Not that engineering isn't a noble profession and that engineers aren't intelligent, moral people.  But the truth is, engineers make horrible presidents. 

There have been two presidents of the United States who were trained as engineers: Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.  Both were unmitigated disasters, who each made things worse and met with electoral defeat after just one term.  Hoover and Carter were such bad presidents that they are in the running for worst president ever, which is saying quite a bit when you consider the stiff competition for the title.  Hoover, a mining engineer, arguably made the Great Depression much worse than it had to be, trusting that the federal government could steer into the skid better than the market.  Carter, a nuclear engineer, if you can believe it, was so inept that he consistently made the wrong decisions throughout his term of office, actually performing worse than if he'd simply flipped a coin to decide matters by chance. 

Some might point out that we've had presidents who graduated from West Point, which basically had at the time an engineering curriculum.  True, but the engineering education at West Point is just part of the overall military education, which is more concerned with, in the words of the great Rush Limbaugh, "killing people and breaking things."  Besides, those presidents went through actual wars, which have a tendency to foster practical people skills.  Carter graduated from Annapolis and served as a nuclear engineer in submarines until he left the Navy to run the family farm.

Semi-full disclosure: I am an engineer.  Or at least I was one in the dim recesses of my checkered past.  So I know of which I speak.

It is often said that an engineering education teaches you how to think.  That is true.  Engineering school teaches you how to think in a certain way.  It inculcates the "engineering mindset," which can be summarized as follows.

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Solve the problem.
  3. Next problem.

This is a wonderful and necessary process when applied to technical problems.  Engineers have wielded this approach with great success to build our modern world.  I, for one, am  grateful for it.  We travel in comfort, eat better and fresher foods, and lead richer lives in large part thanks to the technological marvels brought to us by brilliant, hardworking engineers.

All that said, an engineer, a slave to the engineering mindset, is the last person you want running your government.  Engineers tend to be predisposed to dealing with numbers and devices as opposed to dealing with people.  If they don't start out that way, they'll pick it up quickly enough.  The stereotype of the dispassionate engineer, more comfortable with machines than with people, is well founded.  Whatever else politics is, it involves dealing with people.

I'm not implying that engineers can't do things other than engineering.  Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean, was an electrical engineer before he became a comedian.  Dolf Lundgren was working on a Ph.D. in chemical engineer at MIT before he found his true calling in fisticuffs with Sylvester Stallone.  I'm not even saying engineers can't be politicians.  The former governor of New Hampshire, John Sununu, a Ph.D. mechanical engineering professor, is a prominent example.  But once out of the engineering sphere, one has to realize that engineering principles are no longer applicable.

Another feature that Hoover, Carter, and Bloomberg share, besides engineering, is that they are all progressives.  The engineering mindset and the progressive outlook are a toxic mixture.  Progressives, and their philosophical drinking buddies socialists and communists, are under the mistaken impression that they have it all figured out.  They think there is an instruction manual on how to build and run the perfect society, and they've read and understand that book.  It's simply a question of the rest of us doing what we're told, and everything will work out.  Simple, no?

This confidence in guiding principles is indescribably seductive to someone of the engineering mindset.  What's building a vehicle or a bridge compared to building a society?  All that's needed is the talent to organize the work and the willpower to drive the project through to completion.

The fatal flaw is that there is no instruction manual for the perfect society, or even any practical blueprints to build it with.  Truth be told, there aren't blueprints to build any society.  Cultures, countries just grow on their own, organically.  Even in the communist regimes of the twentieth century, people sort of figured things out on a local level within the idiotic constraints imposed on them from the central governments. 

The progressive engineer, though, accepts the doctrine of the left as a secular gospel, as a handbook for running the world.  An engineer must rely on his understanding of the materials he works with and how those materials behave under given conditions.  The material a politician has to work with is people, and the understanding of people and how they behave under given conditions is not anywhere near complete enough for proper engineering. 

Engineers may build prototypes and experiment, but that is not engineering.  It's research.  As someone once said, "research is what you're doing when you don't know what you're doing."  Above all else, an engineer needs to know what he's doing.  Without that knowledge, there cannot be confidence in the result.  The bridge will collapse.  The circuit won't handle the amperage coursing through it.  The reactor will explode.  The airplane won't get off the ground, or worse yet may claw its way into the air but is disinclined to stay there.

Progressive engineers like Hoover, Carter, and Bloomberg will try to apply the engineering principles that have served them well in other walks of life to politics, and it simply won't work.  They'll try to impose fixes based on a flawed grasp of the situation and then be confused when it doesn't have the expected effect.  Hoover thought he could curb unemployment at the start of the Great Depression by cajoling companies not to fire anyone, not realizing that that was treating symptoms, not the disease.  Carter scolded us to drive 55 and was miffed when we ignored him.  Bloomberg decided that he could improve New Yorkers' health by making it difficult to buy Big Gulps and didn't understand why people ridiculed him for it.  I can only imagine what grand plans Bloomberg has for the nation.

As complex as technical problems can be, people are much more complex than that.  When progressive engineers are confronted with this fact, usually after repeated failures, they typically come to see people as the problem.  I suppose that from where they stand, we are the problem.  We refuse to behave as their textbooks say we should.

Bloomberg has proven that you can make a lot of money thinking and acting like an engineer.  But bad things happen when you try to run a country with the engineering mindset — or a world, for that matter.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

It was a surprise to learn, from a campaign ad, no less, that Michael Bloomberg is, or at least was, an engineer.  A look at Wikipedia confirms that Bloomberg graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1964 with an electrical engineering degree.  This made me roll my eyes and say a prayer asking that Bloomberg not be allowed anywhere near the White House this coming November or any other.  Not that engineering isn't a noble profession and that engineers aren't intelligent, moral people.  But the truth is, engineers make horrible presidents. 

There have been two presidents of the United States who were trained as engineers: Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.  Both were unmitigated disasters, who each made things worse and met with electoral defeat after just one term.  Hoover and Carter were such bad presidents that they are in the running for worst president ever, which is saying quite a bit when you consider the stiff competition for the title.  Hoover, a mining engineer, arguably made the Great Depression much worse than it had to be, trusting that the federal government could steer into the skid better than the market.  Carter, a nuclear engineer, if you can believe it, was so inept that he consistently made the wrong decisions throughout his term of office, actually performing worse than if he'd simply flipped a coin to decide matters by chance. 

Some might point out that we've had presidents who graduated from West Point, which basically had at the time an engineering curriculum.  True, but the engineering education at West Point is just part of the overall military education, which is more concerned with, in the words of the great Rush Limbaugh, "killing people and breaking things."  Besides, those presidents went through actual wars, which have a tendency to foster practical people skills.  Carter graduated from Annapolis and served as a nuclear engineer in submarines until he left the Navy to run the family farm.

Semi-full disclosure: I am an engineer.  Or at least I was one in the dim recesses of my checkered past.  So I know of which I speak.

It is often said that an engineering education teaches you how to think.  That is true.  Engineering school teaches you how to think in a certain way.  It inculcates the "engineering mindset," which can be summarized as follows.

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Solve the problem.
  3. Next problem.

This is a wonderful and necessary process when applied to technical problems.  Engineers have wielded this approach with great success to build our modern world.  I, for one, am  grateful for it.  We travel in comfort, eat better and fresher foods, and lead richer lives in large part thanks to the technological marvels brought to us by brilliant, hardworking engineers.

All that said, an engineer, a slave to the engineering mindset, is the last person you want running your government.  Engineers tend to be predisposed to dealing with numbers and devices as opposed to dealing with people.  If they don't start out that way, they'll pick it up quickly enough.  The stereotype of the dispassionate engineer, more comfortable with machines than with people, is well founded.  Whatever else politics is, it involves dealing with people.

I'm not implying that engineers can't do things other than engineering.  Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean, was an electrical engineer before he became a comedian.  Dolf Lundgren was working on a Ph.D. in chemical engineer at MIT before he found his true calling in fisticuffs with Sylvester Stallone.  I'm not even saying engineers can't be politicians.  The former governor of New Hampshire, John Sununu, a Ph.D. mechanical engineering professor, is a prominent example.  But once out of the engineering sphere, one has to realize that engineering principles are no longer applicable.

Another feature that Hoover, Carter, and Bloomberg share, besides engineering, is that they are all progressives.  The engineering mindset and the progressive outlook are a toxic mixture.  Progressives, and their philosophical drinking buddies socialists and communists, are under the mistaken impression that they have it all figured out.  They think there is an instruction manual on how to build and run the perfect society, and they've read and understand that book.  It's simply a question of the rest of us doing what we're told, and everything will work out.  Simple, no?

This confidence in guiding principles is indescribably seductive to someone of the engineering mindset.  What's building a vehicle or a bridge compared to building a society?  All that's needed is the talent to organize the work and the willpower to drive the project through to completion.

The fatal flaw is that there is no instruction manual for the perfect society, or even any practical blueprints to build it with.  Truth be told, there aren't blueprints to build any society.  Cultures, countries just grow on their own, organically.  Even in the communist regimes of the twentieth century, people sort of figured things out on a local level within the idiotic constraints imposed on them from the central governments. 

The progressive engineer, though, accepts the doctrine of the left as a secular gospel, as a handbook for running the world.  An engineer must rely on his understanding of the materials he works with and how those materials behave under given conditions.  The material a politician has to work with is people, and the understanding of people and how they behave under given conditions is not anywhere near complete enough for proper engineering. 

Engineers may build prototypes and experiment, but that is not engineering.  It's research.  As someone once said, "research is what you're doing when you don't know what you're doing."  Above all else, an engineer needs to know what he's doing.  Without that knowledge, there cannot be confidence in the result.  The bridge will collapse.  The circuit won't handle the amperage coursing through it.  The reactor will explode.  The airplane won't get off the ground, or worse yet may claw its way into the air but is disinclined to stay there.

Progressive engineers like Hoover, Carter, and Bloomberg will try to apply the engineering principles that have served them well in other walks of life to politics, and it simply won't work.  They'll try to impose fixes based on a flawed grasp of the situation and then be confused when it doesn't have the expected effect.  Hoover thought he could curb unemployment at the start of the Great Depression by cajoling companies not to fire anyone, not realizing that that was treating symptoms, not the disease.  Carter scolded us to drive 55 and was miffed when we ignored him.  Bloomberg decided that he could improve New Yorkers' health by making it difficult to buy Big Gulps and didn't understand why people ridiculed him for it.  I can only imagine what grand plans Bloomberg has for the nation.

As complex as technical problems can be, people are much more complex than that.  When progressive engineers are confronted with this fact, usually after repeated failures, they typically come to see people as the problem.  I suppose that from where they stand, we are the problem.  We refuse to behave as their textbooks say we should.

Bloomberg has proven that you can make a lot of money thinking and acting like an engineer.  But bad things happen when you try to run a country with the engineering mindset — or a world, for that matter.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.