CATEGORY: ScienceTechnology

Libertarians, engineers, and climate disruption denial: part 2 – engineers

CATEGORY: ScienceTechnologyPart Two of a series

Most new engineering graduates suffer some form of culture shock after they enter the workforce. The main reason for this is that most engineers exit college with a limited understanding of the business world and the many restrictions that are associated with it. In addition, the corporate environment is radically different from the academic environment engineers had become used to over their four or more years of education, and adjusting can be psychologically traumatic for the first few months to years. I personally know several engineers who couldn’t adapt to the corporate world and instead went back to academia to get a PhD and do research engineering instead of product development.

Most engineers do adapt eventually to the environment of a for-profit, cost- and schedule-constrained job where projects can and often are canceled based on the whim of a customer or changing marketplace conditions. For them the corporate environment permanently alters how they perceive the world and what they value. It’s not possible to spend a third or more of your life in any environment, corporate or not, without that environment affecting you in some way.

General factors in the corporate environment affect engineers’ values

Corporations that make money by designing and manufacturing products tend to be tightly focused on the immediate effects those products will have on the company’s profits. The profit motive is itself usually driven by investors who expect regular dividends and/or perpetually increasing stock value. As a result, the corporation itself, as represented by its upper-level management, usually ends up devaluing employees in favor of investors.

An engineers in this environment often find that he is considered little more than a commodity, just another cog in the product development machine that will be replaced by a fresh face when he wears out. There are only two ways an engineer can avoid this fate – he can become an irreplaceable expert on some aspect of the company’s technology, or he can commit himself completely to the health of the company, often to the detriment of other aspects of his life such as his personal relationships or physical health. During my years as an engineer, I have worked with dozens of engineers who were so focused on their projects that their wives divorced them or they suffered heart attacks while on the job.

For an engineer who has the drive and technical skill to become an expert, there are a number of pitfalls he is likely to encounter. First, the engineer will likely become less receptive to logical, technically sound criticism from other engineers. Second, the engineer will tend to think that his expertise in one area makes him an expert in other areas that that may or may not be related. This usually results in the engineer valuing his own opinions higher than that of actual experts. In both cases it becomes harder for others to change the expert’s mind. Doing so often often takes bashing through the expert’s obstinacy with an overwhelming amount of information or outflanking it in some way. In either case, however, it may well take threatening the expert’s view of his own expertise to get him to admit error.

Most engineers working in corporations won’t become experts, however. There can only be a few experts in any given company, and the smaller the company, the fewer positions of expertise there are. Most engineers will instead focus on the daily grunt work of designing and building quality products, making their designs efficient and inexpensive, and in the process boost the company’s profits and their pay. As a result, engineers naturally take on some of the corporation’s values as their own. Engineers are motivated to do so because a profitable company is one where engineers get raises and holiday bonuses instead of being laid off. Similarly, engineers will tend to conclude that what is good for their employers is good for them (and by extension good for their community, state, country, and maybe even for the world), regardless of whether that is actually the case.

Similarly, when corporations only plan a few years ahead it’s only natural that their employees would come to devalue long-term planning. This is especially bad in the consumer electronics space, where electronics are designed to be thrown out and replaced in a year or two or are intended to only operate correctly for a short period of time. Engineers who work in corporations where long-term planning is largely absent (or isolated from the rank and file) will tend not to plan for the long term themselves. Some will take it a step further and conclude that nothing beyond the the next five years or so even matters. After all, only the rarest engineer finds that his work is still valued five years after it was created, so why worry about it? And since companies can’t reliably anticipate market conditions five years from now, why should the engineer plan his own life that far out? He might be laid off, transferred to a different state, or go into business for himself by that point – planning just takes time and creates stress if your life doesn’t go according to that plan, so why bother.

Cost-cutting on the engineer’s mind

It’s natural that the corporate profit motive and short-term thinking would shift engineers’ values in a similar direction. But this effect is actually relatively small compared to two other effects. Specifically, engineers fresh out of college quickly learn that there are only two ways a company stays profitable and grows – cutting costs and increasing revenues. And they also learn that the easiest, and thus preferred, option is always to cut costs.

While there are many different ways that a corporation can cut costs, they simplify down to a few general types. The corporation can lay off people. It can cut benefits, specifically health and retirement benefits. It can lobby for fewer and cheaper government regulations. It can outsource or offshore design and/or manufacturing. It can become more operationally efficient. Or it can find cheaper parts out of which to make its products. Of all of these options, engineers learn quickly that they actually have little to no control over the bulk of them.

Corporations tend to use euphemisms to describe their employees, and people in general. Employees aren’t “employees” at all – they’re “resources.” These days many corporations have even gone so far as to euphemize “layoffs” into a “reduction in force.” Anyone who works in an environment where people are dehumanized in this way will naturally become less empathic with the plight of other human beings. Engineers tend to be introverts who have difficulty relating to other people anyway, so their loss of empathy is likely to be more apparent than most.

Furthermore, most corporations view health and retirement benefits as a cost of doing business, not as a benefit that keeps their employees healthy and productive. As a result, engineers eventually come to devalue benefits when provided by governments or non-governmental organizations. And since regulations increase the cost of doing business, engineers tend to view regulations as just one more thing that can result in the loss of their jobs. When your job may depend on rejecting additional regulations and cutting entitlement programs, it’s a rare engineer who is going to support those regulations and entitlements.

Efficiency can be a double-edged sword, a fact that most engineers learn quickly. For example, engineers initially supported outsourcing and offshoring of manufacturing as a cost savings and efficiency improvement, but their support waned when they realized that their jobs could also be outsourced or offshored. And when improved efficiency means that an engineer becomes a “redundant resource” and he loses his job, suddenly efficiency improvements aren’t quite so good anymore. But when improved efficiency means reducing the company’s energy bills, cheaper processes, or things that result in job losses for other people, most engineers tend to be strong supporters of efficiency. After all, making something more efficient is a technical design challenge for an engineer, and engineers love challenges.

Finally, engineers work hard to find cheaper solutions and figure out ways to use the cheapest parts they can. This means that engineers come to realize that it’s good for the company to do as little as possible to get the job done. While this comes into direct conflict with another engineering value, namely their perfectionism, in a corporate setting, doing just what’s necessary eventually wins. Doing more takes longer and costs more, and that’s a waste of money. Engineers apply this same corporate value to their wider lives, doing as little as possible in the social and political arenas – and expecting little in return.

Increasing revenues: risky and uncertain

While there is always a strong focus on cutting costs during any product development, engineers are ultimately tasked with designing products that are supposed to increase revenues and, in the process, boost profits. As with cost-cutting, there are only so many ways that a corporation can increase its revenues. A corporation can develop a new product that will sell for more than they cost to design and manufacture. A corporation can cut prices on existing products if the revenues from increased sales will exceed the losses from the price cut. A corporation can offer incentives to purchase products if the increased sales revenues will exceed the costs of the incentives. Finally, a corporation can raise prices on existing products if the resulting increase in revenue is greater than the loss of revenue due to lower sales.

Every new engineer learns a critical fact on their first or second project – every new products is subject to strict calculations of return on investment (ROI). ROI is a calculation of how quickly the company can recoup the money it spent over the course of the development cycle. The longer the development cycle, the less profit the new product will make, the lower the ROI. Products that have too low of an ROI will either never be made or can be canceled at any point during the development cycle. While engineers are not the ones who generally perform the ROI calculations, they do provide a significant amount of the cost data that is used in the calculations. As a result, engineers learn how to apply this strict mathematical process to their own designs and eventually start using variations of ROI in their lives outside the corporation.

The problem with using ROI in the real world is that many things resist being valued in monetary terms. It’s inherently difficult, perhaps even impossible, to place a monetary value the extinction of a species or the damage to the spiritual practices of an indigenous people. There are only two approaches, and those engineers who don’t just throw up their hands in frustration will chose one or the other. First, you can make assumptions about what is valuable and making a wild-ass-guess (a WAG, in technical terminology). Second, you can conclude that anything that is impossible to attach a value to must therefore have no value.

In the corporate world, incentives to buy a product are always short lived and subject to the whim of the company or individual offering the incentive. Many engineers get caught by unscrupulous part suppliers who offer incentives to buy a part that end immediately after the part has been designed into a new product – and after it becomes too expensive to design the part back out of the product. So engineers learn not to trust incentives. When those same engineers look beyond their job, they discover that the world is full of incentives also known as “subsidies.” Those subsidies are subject to the whim of someone else (usually politicians) and that just might go away right after your employer broke ground on a new factory that needs the subsidy to be profitable. And so engineers tend not to trust subsidies either.

The last way that a company can increase revenues to raise prices. Raising prices is a high risk, low reward decision that can drive away customers, and because corporations work so hard to avoid this option, engineers come to understand that raising prices is the last resort. Logically, then, engineers conclude that resorting to raising prices means that the engineers have failed – failed to find cost savings, failed to produce new products in a timely manner, failed to eke out more efficiency. For better or worse, engineers come to see raising taxes becomes just as much a failure of government and politicians as raising prices is a failure of the corporation and its engineers.

Personality traits of engineers

There are reasons that people become engineers in the first place. Those reasons are related in part to having a creative mind and an aptitude for mathematics and science, but base personality matters too.

Going beyond the traditional Myers-Briggs or Big 5 personality traits, engineers have a number of traits that represent the stereotypical, “average” engineer. Engineers tend to be able to focus intently on tasks. Engineers tend to be highly reliant on their personal experience and resistant to changes that run counter to that experience. Engineers tend to enjoy applying their skills to problem solving and like working to well-defined requirements in a system where the rules are well known. And engineers often prefer working alone to working in groups.

Engineers are usually so good at focusing on the task at hand that they suffer from “tunnel vision” and ignore other things until the task is complete. This is a highly desirable trait for corporations because it often means that engineers are happy to work long hours in order to finish their designs on time and under budget. But it also means that engineers generally aren’t great multitaskers. And it can be hard to get an engineer who has “always done it this way” to perform their job differently. Finally, it means that engineers find it more difficult than most people to change gears from a work mentality to a home mentality when the workday ends.

As a result, engineers are often workaholics, resistant to change, and dogmatic in their approach to doing their job and toward their peers. Being resistant to change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because changing too much, too fast can lead to chaos. But if resisting change prevents professional growth or impedes a company’s ability to adapt to new market realities, it does become a bad thing. Often corporations find that the easiest way to change the culture in their engineering departments is to bring in new ideas from outside the company instead of promoting from within.

Furthermore, experienced engineers can become dogmatic about their experience, treating their expert opinion as fact. This results in engineers who are unwilling to accept criticism even when the criticism is reasonable. Engineers who can’t handle reasonable criticism or who lose their ability to adjust to new processes, procedures, or technological advances essentially makes themselves obsolete.

That said, engineers are usually more open to criticism in the context of a discussion or debate about their work. Debating the merits and flaws of a design provides an engineer with an opportunity to learn new ways of doing something in a logical forum. In many ways, engineers implicitly respect the concept of a “marketplace of ideas” when applied to their work. This is partly because such debates have rules and the decision criteria are well known to all participants – for example, does the design meet all the requirements. But if the rules are in flux due to a change in project management, or if the requirements are ambiguous, many engineers will find something else to do until things settle down again. Some engineers work OK with poorly defined requirements, but even they tend to fill in the gaps with documented assumptions that are later approved or rejected by management or the customer.

Finally, engineers tend to be introverts, preferring to work alone over working with others or socializing. This usually isn’t a problem for a starting engineer, but becomes a greater impediment as he gains experience. Eventually every engineer has to work with someone else, or needs to talk to a customer or supplier. That’s when the engineer’s typical lack of social skills can become a serious liability to the corporation and to the engineer himself. Put another way, few engineers are natural diplomats, preferring to apply the same black and white approach that serves them in their work to the many shades of gray inherent to social interaction.

Connections between engineers and libertarians

The values and personality traits of engineers that were described above have strong parallels with the personality traits and moral values of libertarians that were identified in Part 1 of this series. While not all engineers are libertarians and vice versa, the common values and personalities clearly indicate that there are going to be a lot of engineers who are libertarians, and a lot of libertarians who are engineers.

The first trait that engineers and libertarians share is that individuals in both groups tend to be introverted. Engineers work alone as a matter of course in their professional lives, usually working on one part of a project that is siloed off from other parts of the same project. According to the Iyer et al study discussed in Part 1, libertarians were more introverted than either liberals or conservatives on the Big 5 personality traits test and highly valued peer-to-peer individualism (equality of freedom among all individuals).

Introversion tends to be associated with a general lack of social skills among engineers, a trait that libertarians also share. Libertarians’ lack of social skills is a result of their general inability to empathize with others compared to that of conservatives and liberals. If you can’t empathize with the personal distress of others or you simply don’t care about responding appropriately to other people’s emotions, two common libertarians traits identified by Iyer et al, then you’ll have a difficult time determining the right thing to say in a social situation and you probably won’t care about whether you offend someone or not. Engineers share this trait with libertarians not just because of both groups’ common introversion, but also because the corporate engineering experience teaches engineers to devalue people as mere “resources” that can be shed as needed to cut costs. Even people who empathize normally with others will eventually start to dehumanize their peers out of a need for emotional self-protection.

Engineers tend to adopt the values of their employer as their own, another factor that places engineers and libertarians on common ground. Engineers tend to feel that regulations on business are bad because they cost the business money. Libertarians reject regulations because they feel that everyone should be allowed to spend their money however they see fit. And because companies value everything in monetary terms, often within strict ROI calculations, engineers tend to look at politics and policies through the lens of ROI and related calculations of value. Libertarians, by their nature more interested in thinking than feeling, are also attracted to anything that can reduce vagueness to easily calculated and manipulated variables.

Libertarians need to feel rational about their moral decisions, and that need to feel rational is part of what drives them to distill life down into systems with variables and equations that can be solved. Similarly, a significant part of an engineer’s professional life is working within the mathematics that define physical laws. Libertarians are good at suppressing their intuitive reflexes in order find the logically correct answer (as opposed to the intuitive, but wrong, answer), while an engineers who couldn’t do this wouldn’t survive long as an engineer.

Finally, engineers who are not content to be mere cogs in the corporate product development machine will rise to become technical experts in the company. Expert engineers share a desire for achievement that Iyer et al identified with libertarians in general. Unfortunately, expert engineers can become dogmatic and resistant to change if they’re not careful, and that can lead them to ignore reasonable criticism from others who have different, but more valid, experience. Libertarians have a similar resistance to listening to others, especially listening to authorities who are trying to tell the libertarians what to think or how to behave.

While there are a number of other characteristics that engineers and libertarians do not necessarily share, none of those characteristics are incompatible with being both a libertarian and and engineer.

Corporations are strange places to work, especially corporations that exist to design, manufacture, and sell goods. Corporations are focused so tightly on increasing profits today that they tend to focus on the short-term and to value everything – time, people, heat, light, health – in monetary terms. Engineers who work in places like this are nearly all focused on things instead of people, and it takes a certain personality to thrive in that kind of environment.

In order to succeed in this type of environment, engineers need to be logical thinkers who can turn their instincts on and off almost at will. They need to be able to focus on solving a problem to the exclusion of everything else. And as a result, engineers will tend to be more comfortable with things and twiddling equations than they are relating to other people.

The personality characteristics and values of engineers are similar to the defining characteristics and values of libertarians. So it’s not a surprise that many engineers are also libertarians.

In Part 3 we’ll look at why so many engineers and libertarians reject the overwhelming science in support of the industrial causes of climate disruption.

7 comments on “Libertarians, engineers, and climate disruption denial: part 2 – engineers

  1. Interesting. Naturally, this is generalizing, but I guess I always thought of engineers as more of an “applied” science as opposed to an academic or “research” science. In research science, we always factor in some amount of doubt. In engineering, that doubt must be removed, otherwise their product wouldn’t be marketable. Thus, the inherent doubt and wiggle-room scientist leave for future discoveries might not align with what en engineer knows. Since there is some uncertainty about some things having to do with global warming, it gets rejected.

    • In my experience engineers do account for uncertainty, but not in as rigorous a fashion as a scientist does. Since engineers are usually under a lot of budget and schedule pressure, we tend to make do with assigning a certain percentage margin to all our numbers. This lets us be wrong by that percentage and still have a design that functions and meets all the requirements.

      It’s when marketing gets ahold of the product that all the uncertainty gets tossed out the window.

      • “… a certain percentage margin…”

        That would be the margin for error, where for example, if a bridge is required to handle a certain amount of weight, you design it to handle that plus 20%. Another example building something with a margin of sorts is when you design f redundancy into a system. The spare tire, for example, in case one goes flat.

        For something more high tech, there was a hypersonic fighter back in the mid-1980s, the X-29, which due to its forward sweep wing design was more sensitive to slight adjustments, meaning that it was both more maneuverable and more unstable. Onboard computers would make adjustments forty times a second to avoid the plane breaking up in a fraction of a second. The computers had a high degree of redundancy:

        “Each of the three digital flight control computers had an analog backup. If one of the digital computers failed, the remaining two took over. If two of the digital computers failed, the flight control system switched to the analog mode. If one of the analog computers failed, the two remaining analog computers took over. The risk of total systems failure was equivalent in the X-29 to the risk of mechanical failure in a conventional system.”

        Federation of American Scientists: The X-29

        Complex systems are typically built with a degree of redundancy.

  2. Interesting. Cogs indeed. When I interviewed with Reliant back in the day, the guy said, “We’ll put you on motor mounts for a year or two, then you can move up to rotors and eventually even stators!” I went home to my pregnant wife and said, “Honey, I just can’t do this.”

    Not sure I agree with all of it, but clearly almost all of us who work for corporations find ourselves siding with them more than do our friends in academe or the public sector, and since I’d guess most engineers are in the private sector the relationship is probably sound.

    I think there’s another piece of it though. I think engineers tend to be people who want certainty and a bounded world. I think libertarians do too. They want a deterministic world in which outputs equals inputs. Engineers love the certainty of design, the idea that you can think of every possible factor and calculate exactly how big that beam needs to be. (Of course, after all that precise calculating, they then apply a “safety factor,” which basically means they double it just in case they screwed up. So much for hteir confidence in the precision of their calculations.) Libertarians love the idea that their world is controllable and bounded. If they do this, then they will achieve this. It doesn’t work that way of course, so they have to fall back on excuses, like the Texas guy who flew his plane into the IRS building because his businesses had failed, even though he’d never actually paid any taxes.

  3. From my personal experience, the generalization is too broad. I’m an engineer working for a big corporation but my job has a much richer context than what you describe. The bulk commodity manufacturing world is probably narrowest context for an engineer to work in. Thankfully, in other contexts, the job is a lot broader and better.

    L.S, P.Eng.

    • This is necessarily a generalization, L.S., and I admit that it’s based more on my own personal experiences and those of my friends than I’d really like it to be. The problem is that I couldn’t find good, independent information to base it on.

      That said, though, I’m an electrical engineer who has worked in computer storage, telecommunications, medical devices, industrial automation, and aerospace (not necessarily in that order) designing electronics for each of them, and each industry has had similar dynamics. The “worst” was probably the two telecomm positions I had, and the “best” is my current aerospace job, but even at my current employer, profit and cost cutting are king.

      I’m happy for you that your job has wider horizons. I’m not convinced, however, that your experience represents the norm while mine is the outlier. But if you have more information I’d love to hear it.

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