Climate and agriculture: Wheatless in Hampstead

According to an article in yesterday’s Independent, the weather in Britain, especially England, has been so lousy that the UK is set to go from a wheat exporter to a wheat importer for the first time in a decade. The culprit here, if there is only one, appears to be the long spell of cold temperatures we’ve had this winter, on top of what can only be called a terrible year of weather. First we had a severe drought in the spring, and then the rains came thundering down, so then we had a lot of flooding, pretty much all over the country. Then this ridiculously cold and long winter. So grain harvests have been ruined. Actually, not just grain harvests—the folks at Riverford Farms out in Devon, who supply us with our vegetables, have had a pretty bad winter for vegetables, on top of a pretty bad year last year. Of course, this is nothing compared with the wheat problem that Egypt faces. But still, it’s indicative of a pretty unfavorable trend.

And it’s put even more pressure on farmers, who have recently also seen near-record livestock losses due to unusually cold and stormy winter weather, and the continual squeeze from the supermarkets that respective Labour and coalition governments appear unwilling to address. To make matters worse, spring plantings are going to be late, and small. We’ve just had the coldest March in 50 years, after the coldest February ever recorded. As The Independent states:

The poor harvest represents the lowest wheat crop since 1985 and means the country will be a net importer of the grain this crop year for the first time since 2001. The NFU predicts next crop year – July 2013 to June 2014 – will be another year of net wheat imports, the first time this has happened in consecutive years since the start of the 1980s.

But while farmers will lose hundreds of millions of pounds and the fragile economy will suffer, British consumers are only like to see a small increase, if any, in the price of a loaf.

“Wheat only represents about a tenth of the cost of a loaf and energy costs and packaging probably have as large an impact on price,” says NFU chief economist Phil Bicknell. “But the wheat price is determined by global supply, rather than UK supply, and the price has actually dipped in the last few days.”

For sure, it’s been a very bad couple of years for British farming. As The Independent, which has been doing good reporting work in this area for some time, reminds us:

Britain’s farmers are facing the third poor harvest on the run as the coldest March in 50 years plays havoc with crop planting–already significantly down because of last year’s wet weather.

With the cold snap set to continue through April, farmers say crops such as potatoes, peas, tomatoes and ornamental flowers have either not been planted, are not growing or are being stunted by the lack of light.

This follows low winter planting levels of cereal crops–a fifth down on last year because of the wet weather. A shortage of spring seed is adding to the problems.

Lower UK crop yields will make UK consumers more reliant on imports and the vagaries of the international markets, which could push up prices. Livestock farmers have been struggling to cope for some time with feed shortages due to poor grass growth in the summer, and continuing snow hampering deliveries.

But wait—how can prices be going down? Aren’t global wheat stocks declining? Well, yes, but it depends on how you look at the world. Stocks are declining on a per capita basis, especially in the developing world where grains count for a lot. But global wheat production actually wasn’t too bad in 2012, in spite of severe drought conditions in a number of wheat-producing areas, because of the increase in planted acreage in other regions. In the US, for example, Minnesota and North Dakota had record wheat harvests. And wheat prices, like those of many commodities, are global—hence the recent weakening. The UN FAO report last month actually forecasts an uptick in wheat production in 2013, in part because of an increase in planting in Europe. However, this forecast was made a month ago, before Britain and Northern Europe had a month of such bad weather. It snowed in both London and Berlin last week. The next FAO forecast comes out on 11 April—it’s entirely possible there will be some negative revisions to 2013 estimates.

Moreover, consumption trends continue to outpace production trends for grain in general, although global consumption did fall in 2012. So what happens if the significant droughts that have been afflicting the United States, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Australia continue—as it appears they will? Fortunately, there has been no real drought in China, which had a record grain harvest in 2012 (but was still among the top ten grain importers globally). Meanwhile, the trend towards great consumption looks set to continue—simple demographics, after all. This means that global grain stocks will continue to be stressed. Grain stocks worldwide currently stand at 423 million tons—which covers 68 days of consumption. This isn’t a record low level—but it’s close, being just six days longer than the record low that preceded the 2007-2008 grain crisis.

So much turns on the current global droughts, and whether they look likely to persist. In the US, things look a bit better than they did last summer, but not at all great—half the country is still affected by significant aridity. Here’s the most recent US drought monitor, and it sure doesn’t look a whole lot better than it did a year ago in that Midwestern region that supplies so much grain. Texas is a basket case, of course, but jeez, look at Nebraska. Globally, while the Ukraine looks better, Russia and Kazakhstan sure do not. And Australia? Don’t ask. Rainfall deficiencies (as they’re called) have been declining, which is the positive news, one supposes. But really, it’s no change of any substance after the hottest summer on record. Wheat production declined 27% from 2011/2012, and there’s no reason to expect any near-term improvement, even though the USDA, strangely enough, is calling for just that.

We continue to balance precariously. We saw what happened in 2008 when that balance was distorted. It’s only a matter of time before the balance gets distorted again, and there’s not much that Monsanto is going to be able to do about it. Meanwhile, I’m just going to hope that things dry out here a bit so that a reasonably normal spring planting season can still take place. But I’m not getting my hopes up.

Corporate values lead engineers to deny industrial climate disruption

MODIS-generated ocean chlorophyll-a map.

MODIS-generated ocean chlorophyll-a map.

Part Four of a series

Industrial climate disruption – the disruption of the global climate as a result of human activity, especially our industrial consumption of fossil fuels – is more or less settled scientific fact. In order for industrial climate disruption to be incorrect, over a century of well-established science would have to be overturned. In addition, the operational principles of innumerable technologies derived from that well-established science would also have to be rethought. Some of the technologies that are derived from the same sciences that are responsible for the scientific certainty about industrial climate disruption include semiconductors, CCD-based cameras, microwave ovens, chlorophyll-measuring satellite cameras, nuclear energy, every model of thermal radiation ever performed, LED and fluorescent lighting, lasers, and nearly every modern communications system, just for starters.

While industrial climate disruption presents a clear threat to the libertarian values identified by the Iyer et al study discussed in Part One of this series, the threat to engineers is less obvious but no less real. As we learned in Part Two, engineers often come to value what their corporate employers value, namely short-term profits. Industrial climate disruption challenges the primacy of short-term profits and, as a result, engineers are also highly motivated to reject the reality of industrial climate disruption.

Industrial climate disruption threatens corporate profits

Engineers take on many of the values of the corporations where they work day in and day out. As a result, engineers reasonably conclude that what’s good for the company is also good for the engineer. By extension, what’s bad for the company is also bad for the engineer, and there is little doubt that industrial climate disruption will be bad for corporations that design, manufacture, and sell products, at least in the short term. It’s tough to get people to accept something that threatens their jobs, and that’s why so many engineers deny industrial climate disruption.

Corporations naturally value profits – without them the corporation will eventually fail and shut down. As we learned in Part Two, corporations who want to make more money prefer the certainty of cost cutting to the uncertainty and risk of raising prices. In addition, investors in the corporation tend to keep the company focused on short term return-on-investment (ROI) in the form of dividend payments and perpetually increasing stock value.

When we look at how industrial climate disruption is likely to affect corporations, it’s pretty clear that corporations will be forced by regulators and/or legislators and might be pushed by investors and customers to absorb substantial new costs in order to mitigate and adapt to industrial climate disruption. Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions could well require new regulations or taxes and certainly will require that the price of energy increase, all of which would directly affect corporate profits. There are also compliance costs that corporations have to pay in order to hire new employees and train current employees in how to conform to any new industrial climate disruption-related regulations.

Corporations will also have to adapt to increasing energy prices, especially the higher costs of transportation fuel. The offshoring of production that happened during the 1990s and 2000s was predicated upon cheap bunker fuel for containers ships and diesel for shipping products from ports across the country. Without cheap fuel, corporations will need to “onshore” the very production they offshored over the last 20 years, paying significant one-time costs in the process.

In addition, customers and certain types of investors (such as state pension plans who value long-term stability more than short-term ROI) are also likely to push companies to take on and track their emissions as a component of a larger corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. While this will be no big deal for the many corporations that already have CSR in place today, it will be a significant headache to those companies who don’t have CSR in their corporate DNA or that have been actively resisting calls for CSR. Adding CSR to their corporate plan could add significant costs and would involve limitations on the company’s behavior.

any corporations and a few entire industries would face lower profits and many unhappy investors if they have to comply with new regulations, pay new taxes, and impose restrictions on their own behavior as a response to industrial climate disruption. As we saw in Part Two, all of these factors that increase the cost of doing business result in additional cost-cutting pressure placed on the shoulders of engineers.

To paraphrase the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition: Regulations are bad for business. Taxes are bad for business. Restricting your own behavior is bad for business.

It’s no wonder then that engineers come to regard industrial climate disruption, which will absolutely be bad in the short term for most businesses, as something to be rejected. After all, it’s hard to get a man to accept something when his job depends on him not accepting it.

An example: engineers’ motivated arguments regarding natural climate variation

One of the more common arguments against the industrial causes of climate disruption is that the Earth’s climate has been varying naturally for billions of years, so the climate disruption that we’re experiencing must be a natural variation. This is a strong argument for engineers who are by their very nature resistant to change, used to being the expert on things, and who rely heavily on historical knowledge and personal experience.

Engineers who look at industrial climate disruption see the modern changes in temperature as played out against a backdrop of hundreds of millions of years of geologic history. They know that climate has varied wildly over that period and that those variations could not have been driven by human activity since humanity only started emitting significant amounts of greenhouse gases in the last few hundred years. So engineers look at industrial climate disruption and see something that is far more likely driven by some alternate natural source (such as the sun, another common argument against industrial climate disruption).

This argument is reasonable to a point. In engineering, if something behaved one way in the past, it’s a reasonable starting assumption to believe that it will behave the same way again. That’s the foundation of engineering experience, after all, and it’s entirely appropriate. The problem is that confirmation bias sends too many engineers off looking for alternate natural sources of the observed global temperature increases. What engineers should be doing instead is asking the following question: What’s different this time from the last time this happened?

In the case of industrial climate disruption, the answer to that question is “one hell of a lot.” There wasn’t a human civilization pumping gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere every year as it burned carbon-based fuels that have been slowly sequestered underground over the course of several hundred million years, for starters. There wasn’t six billion people that need to be fed and have their concentrated wastes processed either. Depending on how far back you look, the Earth might have been just coming out of an ice age, the continents might not have been in the same configuration they are today, or the sun might have been shining several percent less energy down onto the Earth’s surface.

But if engineers accept this, then that means they’re accepting that their own experience is wrong, or at least in need of some serious updating. And it means that their job might be at risk as their employer cuts jobs or drives them to work even longer hours for the same pay in order to increase efficiency and cut costs. None of those things are exactly pleasant for an engineer to consider. It’s so much easier for an engineer to simply deny that industrial climate disruption is a problem and then find reasons in support of that conclusion.

Engineers who have let their fear of losing their job send them off tilting at climate science windmills will be very hard to bring back to reality. The reason for this is simple – most engineers really don’t like being wrong. They’re used to being the experts to whom everyone looks for the correct answer. And they’re used to having people listen to them and take their advice, even on areas that are only tangentially related to . As a result, engineers who also deny industrial climate disruption will not want to admit that they had failed to do the necessary mathematical due-diligence because of their own personal biases.

Dilbert.com

Dilbert.com

There are a significant number of engineers among the ranks of industrial climate disruption deniers not because of some shared ideology among all engineers, but rather because many engineers share a common fear that industrial climate disruption will cost them their jobs. And it’s not an unreasonable fear – certain industries and types of corporations are going to be seriously affected by the various mitigation and adaptation strategies that are imposed upon them by regulators, politicians, insurance companies, and even some investors. If industrial climate disruption is merely a minor threat, and if enough people can be convinced of that fact, then it’s better for the engineer himself over the short run.

The problem is that the longer we wait to start mitigating and adapting to industrial climate disruption, the more it will cost and the more likely it is that the engineer loses his job in the long run. But as we saw in Part Two, most companies and engineers don’t focus on the long run any more.

In Part Five we’ll investigate why libertarians and engineers should embrace industrial climate disruption and how they could become powerful allies instead of ideological opponents.

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.

Mark Zuckerberg: Is it time for Facebook's boy genius to go?

Today’s LA Times asks a good question: Is Mark Zuckerberg in over his hoodie as Facebook CEO?

Business writers Walter Hamilton and Jessica Guynn dig into an issue that I suspect some of us have seen before, and it’s remarkable that the clamor over Zuck specifically hasn’t been louder for some time.

Should Mark Zuckerberg, the social media visionary but neophyte corporate manager, step aside as CEO to let a more seasoned executive run the multibillion-dollar company? Continue reading

Wake Forest students and alumni are correct in challenging university commencement speaker selection

Some recent graduates of my alma mater, Wake Forest University, are up in arms over this year’s commencement speaker, former DISH Network chairman Charlie Ergen. They penned what struck me as a thoughtful, well-considered letter to university president Dr. Nathan Hatch, in which they chastised him for a pattern of pandering to business interests to the exclusion of those who have made their marks in other fields.

The May 23 letter, published in the May 29 issues of the Old Gold & Black, takes a passing shot at Ergen’s speech (“riddled with clichés and reductive statements, as well as addressed primarily to his graduating daughter, rather than the class of a thousand newly-minted alumni”), but quickly moves on to the substance of their objection. Noting that the last three commencement speakers have hailed from the business world, the alums write that: Continue reading

Nota Bene #122: OWStanding

“When I lie on the beach there naked, which I do sometimes, and I feel the wind coming over me and I see the stars up above and I am looking into this very deep, indescribable night, it is something that escapes my vocabulary to describe. Then I think: ‘God, I have no importance. Whatever I do or don’t do, or what anybody does, is not more important than the grains of sand that I am lying on, or the coconut that I am using for my pillow.'” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #121: Birds of an Ancient Feather

“Television is an invention whereby you can be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your house.” Who said it? The answer is at the end of this post. Now on to the links! Continue reading

Nota Bene #119: Think! It Ain't Illegal Yet

“My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #118: VOTE!

“I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #117: Wake Up!

“Hollywood is so crooked that Mafia gangsters are entirely outclassed and don’t stand a chance. People in Hollywood are smarter. They have more sophisticated knowledge of money and deals and how to steal legally rather than illegally.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #115: RIP No. 32

“If you’re really pro-life, do me a favor—don’t lock arms and block medical clinics. If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #114: Big Star

“The radio makes hideous sounds.” Who said it? Continue reading

The letter that Steve Jobs ought to write to Apple customers

Tricky Dick. Slick Willie. Toyota. Now … Apple? What the heck is so hard about the truth, especially when it’s clear that we live in a world where it gets harder and harder to lie and get away with it by the day.

I may have mentioned my friend John Cavanaugh’s biz site, The Tap Tap Tap. John is too busy to blog as much as I’d like, but for fans of quality over quantity it’s one of the best things out there, mainly because while the subjects are ostensibly business, advertising and brand related, he’s really making much broader points that apply to the non-business portions of life. Continue reading

Nota Bene #112: GOOOLLLLLLLL

“Freedom of any kind is the worst for creativity.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #110: WEHT SWK?

“In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #109: You Can't Tuna Fish

“It’s absolutely stunning to me, the contempt in which the network holds the audience. The idea that these people have standards is laughable.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #107: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” Who said it? Continue reading