Actually, the concept is not really novel. According to a study conducted by The Economist in 2009 using the Who's Who International Database, about 7 percent of elected politicians worldwide are engineers by trade. In China, for example, the concept is quite entrenched, with a number of engineers holding office, including President Hu Jintao. (The Economist suggests that this is partly due to Maoism, with engineering seen as a safer field of study than others, and partly due to China's authoritarian style of government.)
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, and Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, are other notable examples of international engineer-politicians. No doubt there are many others (please feel free to add to the list in the comments section below).
In the U.S. and other Western democracies, though, there appear to have been very few engineers elected to major offices. (As should be obvious, there are many, many more lawyers in Washington than engineers). A listing of U.S. presidents by occupation on Wikipedia lists only one U.S. President, Herbert Hoover, as an engineer (and that didn't go so well—he presided over the early years of the Great Depression). Jimmy Carter also studied nuclear engineering and was involved in the development of nuclear propulsion systems while in the U.S. Navy, though there is some debate about whether Carter should be considered an actual engineer as opposed to a technician, because he did not earn an engineering degree.
One reason may be the cultural reverence attached to engineering in some places of the world. We often hear that engineering is respected and revered much more in other countries than here. In places were engineers are put on a pedestal, they are much likely to gain support for national office.
I suspect another dynamic at work here is difference in style of government. As The Economist points out, governments in China often "ride roughshod over critics." In the U.S., the situation is different. Politicians are endlessly sparring with critics, framing arguments, spinning messaging and standing behind the podium to deliver speeches to appeal to the masses. They are, in short, constantly politicking.
Many brilliant engineers, while quite comfortable solving complex problems in the laboratory or in their cubicle, may lack the skills or even the desire to take on a hostile opposition party, kowtow to constituents and glad-hand wealthy backers in the never-ending quest to raise election war chests.
Which brings me to another point: While there certainly aren't a lot of engineers that hold office in the U.S., there is also no real evidence to suggest that many engineers are interested in entering the political arena. On a national level, I cannot recall a single engineer becoming a serious candidate for the U.S. presidency in the past 20 years. (Ross Perot, a third-party candidate in 1992, founded Electronic Data Systems but did not earn a degree in engineering). There are only a handful of engineers in Congress.
Perhaps it's time for this to change. The stereotypical engineer may not seem an ideal fit for the realities of modern U.S. politics for many of the reasons mentioned above, but those reasons have a lot to do with why the U.S. political system is broken. And engineers, at a very fundamental level, are builders—exactly the type of people that we need to fix a broken system.
Facing a mountain of serious problems and a venomous political environment that makes it all but impossible to imagine that anything constructive can be done about any of them, I for one believe that Washington would greatly benefit from an infusion of serious analytical minds with a penchant for getting things done.
It'll never happen, but imagine for a second that all of the politicians in Washington were replaced by engineers. And let's just say that these engineers encompass a range of political viewpoints that roughly approximates what we have represented today. No doubt there would still be plenty of disagreement on major issues, but I for one would have much more confidence in the engineers' ability to put their collective heads down, roll up their collective sleeves and get to work solving problems. Let's take it a step further and replace all of the Congressional office buildings—and the west wing of the White House for that matter—with a giant, open cube farm, where the engineers now running the country can work in close proximity, engage in water cooler chit chat and have occasional awkward conversations about overly loud phone voices and other issues that result from working together in close quarters.
All we need now is to identify some promising candidates for our new engineer-run government. I hereby open the floor for nominations in the comment section below.
Reminds me of a similar article and discussion over at The Economist. Technocracy is hard to build and sustain where the government derives it's mandate entirely through the electoral machinery. An entirely different skill set is at play at such places.
sharps_eng, I think the "corruption of purpose" that you are talking about may be similar between engineers and attorneys, at least when the corruption occurs when idealism encounters reality. In any real design, various factors contend, priorities rank objectives, and no two people may wind up with the same priorities: hence design compromise. The sentence above could be rewritten slightly to describe political designs, i. e., what do we spend tax money on? We may agree that taxes are needed, we may agree that we need sewage systems, but we might have plenty of trouble deciding between a new sewer and a new fire engine. Hence, both professions find themselves in battles, sometime pitched, that result in a solution that doesn't please anyone. If that's what you are thinking of, I am in agreement.
Idealistic protest is just that: idealism. The ideals are not often obtained, but sometimes things are made better. Just as often, the ideals turn into a French Revolution, and idealism becomes bloodshed. The idealism of youth is natural and good; the cynism of age is also natural, and good: when the two average out.
I believe you are correct on the topic of Brunel. Still, he was an interesting guy.
@Bob Lacova: the corruption of purpose I was trying to describe is very similar between engineers and lawyers; many of each end up producing compromised and corrupted 'product', despite having started with high ideals.
I have experienced idealistic protest myself in the past and can tell you that one attraction is feeling part of something bigger than oneself, maybe it offered escape from the angst of youth, but there were plenty of genuinely altruistic people and altruistic acts around.
Looking back over many years of entrepreneurial rat-race it is easy to see what has been missed, squandered or lost in the process of self-gain.
Back on topic, you can no doubt have too many engineers, and a drear world it might be (although many are musicians), but you can definitely have too few. Examinations and qualifications were introduced i order to regulate and create a peer-regulated profession which could be trusted with big money for enormous projects.
Brunel created many lasting monuments but I don't think he made much money for his immediate investors, did he? Correct me if I am wrong.
Curiously, MLED, I agree with your conclusion, but not the method by which you obtain it. That is, I agree that engineers are not likely to be better than any other professional at governing. However, you reach this conclusion by invoking an ad hominem attack on my politics. This isn't a very convincing argument: I admit to being a conservative, but by concluding that because that I always take certain positions that engineers are no better at governing than anyone else is a pretty poor argument. By all means, disparage my positions and politics (The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about--Wilde), but why not use something else (such as a reasoned position of your own) as support for your positions?
Law and politics are close enough that a lawyer can skip back and forth between the two with little career impact. Engineering and politics are very different...the political arena will tend to reject (e.g., not elect or work with, if elected) the engineer as an outsider/unsuited/different, and the engineering arena will tend to reject (e.g., not employ, except perhaps as an independent consultant) an engineer who worked in politics for awhile and then decided to come back to engineering. So, for most engineers, a stint in politics would be a one-way career change, and I think that folks who really like engineering (whatever your definition is) are disinclined to risk not being able to come back to engineering.
sharps_eng, much of what you say in your first paragraph is sensible. But there's a vital difference in the way we "sell our souls" between an engineer's training and that of an attorney. An engineer struggles to put the most accurate face on data or a system. If he fails to do so, he produces failure. Therefore, he slants observations or cushions reality at risk. An attorney, in litigation, is trained to distort facts in a plausible manner to meet the needs of clients. Sometimes this is called by pretty names, sometimes it is called "lying". The engineer would be castigated for the actions that make an attorney successful. That's just the way the professions operate.
As far as environmental or political protesters, they are trying to achieve change for their own reasons, which are simple: power over other people. Since they cannot easily obtain their wants through the normal legislative process, they resort to mob tactics. Before I want a change, I'd like to know if it's for the better. Changes for "sustainable" this or that, or protests against the people who employ most of us are just the actions of yet another group of adolescents who want things their way, right now.
Hi BobSound, you may not remember any more but there was a time when the US hat a president who was one engineer, and the situation was much better, by the way China is run by engineers interesting? the may will eliminate special interest so we would not have war after war , it would be not better? an ingenieurs as CEO? Well look Daimler Benz, BMW, Intel and many others the all run by ingenieurs, European stile, since they have what a CEO should have: the capability of systematic thinking
What a smug bunch -- Maybe it's like this: young engineers and lawyers start off with ideals and a black-and-white view. As each mature in their field they become better at doing engineering or law, but in both cases are constrained by the tools and systems at hand. Both struggle day-to-day with a bad approximation of a job; both are frustrated with 'Them' and wish that things were different. But I think that the compromises each has to make to sell his/her soul to get by are very similar, so that otherwise good engineers work in corrupt and ineffectively managed companies producing inferior products. Otherwise well-meaning and earnest lawyers produce bad cases by following bad law, and in both law and engineering both have the power to fix things but -- well, why don't they(we) do something about it?
Say what you like about environmental or political protesters, at least they have been trying to achieve change, instead of just taking the money and complaining about how things should be better.
someEmbeddedGuy's response, despite its lack of statistics, examples, and projections, may be about as close an answer as one is likely to get. Engineers don't learn that there's not all that much certainty in their profession until well down the road. At that point, they have finally begun to learn the profession. But don't be misled: engineers understand "the full visible light spectrum" perfectly well. We call that process design compromises, and most of us are all too familiar with weighing opposed goals.
DaveE, it's worse than that. In medieval time, states were ruled by hereditary authorities, who to a great extent did as they pleased. They had no particular qualifications, except this: the mass of people accepted their right to govern, often justifying this authority as being divinely sanctioned. In the EU superstate, who thinks any of the Brussels suits have divine authorization, public authorization, or any right to rule other than the fact that they have wrested it from the component no-longer-sovereign states? It seems to be a few centuries of grey poverty and virtual slavery in the making.
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