Few rules, fewer regulators — President Donald’s shrink-the-government plan

In the absence of rules and sheriffs, bandits will multiply.

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment3The end game of the heavily mediated engine driving American political strife boils down to these questions:

  • What is the appropriate size of the federal government?
  • Who should decide that?
  • Who should run the “right-sized” government based on what values determined by whom?

Big, big money was wagered in the 2016 election cycle on the outcome of this game as gazillionaires of the right and left poured donations (wonder how many are legal?) into competing PACs, SuperPACS, and 501C’s.

The Democrats shouted: We need social equality. Continue reading


Dear Human Resources: four ways employers can help America’s job hunters (and themselves)

“Hiring managers” say only apply for jobs you’re qualified for. Fine. Now, here are some things HR needs to do in return.

Only-Post-JobsI subscribe to a number of industry mailing lists and content services as part of my work, and periodically they’ll publish stories aimed at helping job seekers – how to find opportunities, how to network, résumé tips, that sort of thing. Recently one of them posted an article where they elicited advice for job hunters from “hiring managers.” (Actually, these folks weren’t hiring managers at all – they were HR staffing managers, who have nothing to do with the hiring decision. But they’re the gatekeepers, so their opinions matter. )

The key bit of insight in this one particular piece was fairly straightforward: only apply for jobs that you’re qualified for. Continue reading


Squirrel!: Welcome to the Ricky Bobby School of Management

BusinessPart two of a series.

Ricky Bobby is not a thinker…He is a doer. – Talladega Nights

In part one of this series, we talked about a new analysis that explains how important stupidity is to the modern corporation. Today we’re going to have a look at what this means for you.

In short, despite what you’ve been told your whole life, being smart may not be good for your career.

In some job situations, being smarter, faster, and more rhetorically gifted might also keep you stuck in your current role longer than your peers.

“When you have a lower-level job, being exceptionally good at it is usually a deterrent to getting promoted,” says Lilit Marcus, author of Save the Assistants: A Guide for Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace. For example, “when you’re such a great assistant that your boss has difficulty functioning without you, it means that he or she will keep you on as an assistant as long as possible and will not consider promoting you out of their service.”

You bust your ass, you’re the best performer in the office, and yet you got passed over for a promotion by that useless dolt Johnson, who spends all day on Facebook? Indeed, and now maybe you know why.

I was talking with my friend and colleague J. Stephen O’Brien, who spent years as a senior level consultant for some of the country’s largest corporations. He hid this to say about the process of deciding whom to lay off:

It wasn’t that they targeted smart people, it was that the people they let go tended to be among the very best or very worst performers. The very best performers tended to be the very smartest, or at least the smartest who were unwilling to just go along and keep their mouths shut.

And this is a common phenomenon. You hear it all the time in post-layoff interviews and focus groups. The people left behind are, in virtually every case, flabbergasted that “Mary” of “Bob” or whoever was let go, because they were the very best.

But the very best tend to be both threatening and irritating. They figure out stuff that’s being done wrong, and they want to fix it. When interviewed about why Mary or Bob was let go, the people making that decision usually had something to say along the lines of “not a team player,” “trouble-maker,” “didn’t fit in,” etc. People who worked side-by-side with Mary and Bob didn’t have these impressions, at all. Just the opposite, in fact.

This dynamic helps explain a particular kind of company, one that some of us know all too well. In this company you find smart people, but a) they’re generally quiet, and b) none of them are higher than mid-management. The senior leadership stratum is Ricky Bobby from one end to the other, and anyone lower down the food chain who demonstrates above average intellect is soon out the door. (Fred Spannus does a wonderful job of articulating their particular perspective, and I recommend you pop over and give him a read when you’re done here.)

The irony is that a lot of the former employees JS describes had probably been encouraged to speak up. Be forewarned: it’s a trap. Avoid cultivating a reputation as a “straight-shooter” as you would the galloping herpes. When the bosses say “we really appreciate your honesty,” they’re lying.

In the end, it’s clear that all too many businesses are populated and run by people who, as I have been known to say in business meetings, “aren’t rocket surgeons.” In some cases it seems to work out for them (witness the massive profit numbers generated by companies whose leaders are essentially sociopathic C students). But there’s a cost, and it’s frequently paid by workers who haven’t yet learned to keep their intelligence to themselves.

As I thought about this series over the past few days, my mind kept swinging back around to dogs. You know how dogs don’t really grasp the concept of pointing? You’ll be pointing up a tree and saying “look, buddy, a squirrel!” He’ll be all excited because he knows the word “squirrel,” but since he’s staring at your finger instead what you’re pointing at, he’s completely baffled?

That’s what a lot of business leaders are like. They talk about how important it is to have smart people, even though they’re structured so as to keep smart people out of the company (or at least away from decision making). They bray about creativity, making frequent reference to how important it is to “think outside the box.” Because nothing is more creative than the tiredest cliché in the jargon manual.

But when a truly smart employee stands up and points to a creative idea, like a dog owner to a squirrel in a tree, the “leaders” respond by staring at the finger. And then trying to bite it.

Be brilliant if you must. But if leadership finds out, be prepared to suffer the consequences.


American business: powered by Stupid®

Part one of a series.

Phil Rizzuto: “Hey Yogi I think we’re lost.”

Yogi Berra: “Yeah, but we’re making great time!”

BusinessYou know how certain segments of society think that governments and universities and public school systems ought to be “run like businesses”? And how those same people bitch at length about how messed up their companies are and by the way, their bosses are complete morons. Yeah. Me, too.

Truth is, hardly anything should be run more like a business. Including, you know, businesses. There can be appalling levels of stupidity at work in even the best of companies: counterproductive decision making, breathtaking short-sightedness, a robust commitment to keeping smart people as far away from meaningful authority as possible – these are all too often the hallmarks of real businesses.

But we have to be careful when talking about business and teh stupid, because one often finds oases of pure genius in the midst of the intellectual wasteland. In larger companies, for instance, it’s almost impossible to talk about how things run in the aggregate – you usually need to take the conversation business unit by business unit, work group by work group. I once worked in a Fortune 500 telecom that was, collectively speaking, steeped in every kind of 19th century legacy idiocy you could think of. But Corporate Communications was a model organization. Truly, to this day it’s the best PR group I have ever seen. And within it sat the Employee Communication group. When I arrived, it was (for a variety of reasons, many of them owing to the senior manager in charge), a complete joke, the target of barely concealed snickering on the part of the talented folks around the corner in Media Relations. By the time I left two years later, though, it had earned a great deal of respect from everyone it touched.

So within one narrow silo in the org chart as of the moment I arrived, you had a bad group that was part of a world-class department that was part of a company captive to old, dying ways of thinking. All of which means that yes, there’s lots of stupid, but it’s important to think in nuanced ways about it.

The problem is that I have been writing in such a way as to suggest that stupid is a bad thing. Not so, says a recent analysis.

A recent article in the Journal of Management Studies examines the value of stupidity in successful companies. Yes, I said “value.” For starters, says lead author Mats Alvesson, professor of organization studies at Lund University in Sweden, stupidity can increase efficiency.

In…”A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organisations” Alvesson and colleague André Spicer explain how what they call “functional stupidity” generally helped get things done. “Critical reflection and shrewdness” were net positives, but when too many clever individuals in an organization raised their hands to suggest alternative courses of action or to ask “disquieting questions about decisions and structures,” work slowed.

I think what we have here is a corporate application of the old adage that “ignorance is bliss.”

The study’s authors found that stupidity, on the other hand, seemed to have a unifying effect. It boosted productivity. People content in an atmosphere of functional stupidity came to consensus more easily, and with that consensus came greater roll-up-our-sleeves enthusiasm for concentrating on the job.

To sum up, stupid people reach consensus quickly and then set about enthusiastically acting on it. I can’t lie, that does have the ring of truth about it. The authors are describing what is known, in management-speak, as a “bias for action.” No word on how stupidity and consensus relate to doing the right things, but one presumes this goes back to the whole “too many clever individuals” problem from that first quote.

This all leads to some disoriented thinking, I fear. Many of us look at top businesses and fancy that their success is a function of intelligence. And we want government bureaucracies and schools, which are less “efficient” and hence less intelligent, to be more like businesses, which we now know owe their accomplishments in large part not to intelligence, but to stupidity.

Which may mean that those organizations we hate aren’t how they are because their people are idiots, but just the opposite. They’re too smart for their own good. They’re so worried about doing the right things the right way that they never get off their butts and do anything.

Now I’m thinking about the old management catchphrase from some years back – don’t work harder, work smarter. Which is precisely the wrong advice. By all means work harder, and if possible, work dumber.

My head hurts. I’m going to go have a couple of stiff drinks before I get back to work….

CATEGORY: BusinessFinance2

Why corporations are like Burmese pythons

CATEGORY: BusinessFinance2Last week, many Americans were stunned to pick up their newspapers and learn that AIG was suing us taxpayers for saving them. We shouldn’t have been. That’s what any corporation would do. Indeed, the directors of AIG had to consider it or else get sued themselves.

Corporations are the Burmese pythons of the economic ecosystem.

Burmese pythons are the giant snakes now taking over Florida. Not native to Florida and relatively recent arrivals, they are nonetheless thriving, growing to tremendous lengths and having babies by the basketful. In the process they are driving out the native species and terrifying parents of toddlers and owners of small dogs. Pythons are successful because the indigenous species are not large enough or strong enough to challenge them. We humans did not realize the threat they posed until we woke up one morning and found a 200 lb snake in the swimming pool. That’s why today Florida kicked off a state-wide Burmese python hunt, complete with prizes.

Which brings us back to corporations. Corporations are so successful, and so ubiquitous, that it would probably surprise most people to learn they are a very recent introduction into the economy. While most economic entities—companies, countries, trading blocs, markets, etc have been around for thousands of years, modern corporations were started in 1855 in England with the passage of the Limited Liability Act. And in just over a century, they had already grown to the point where they could strangle and devour small nation-states (ARAMCO in the Middle East, United Fruit in Latin America, Rhodes in Africa). Now corporations are becoming large and bold enough to challenge large countries.

Corporations are advantaged in the economic ecosystem because of five factors.

First, they are dictatorships, not democracies. Dictatorships are inherently advantaged over democracies in terms of speed and action. In the short term, the advantage created by minimizing discussion allows for rapid decision-making and follow-through. Of course dictatorships tend not to be advantaged over the long term because they are have succession and resource allocation issues, and in fact we have seen many very large and successful corporations fail or atrophy, e.g., Kodak, GM.

Second, limited liability gives them the ability to grow to tremendous size. Before the corporations act, if a company failed, creditors could come after the investors for their money. As a result, investors were very careful what they invested in and very careful of the obligations that company took on. Investors did not want to own giant companies with potentially giant downside risks. However, with limited liability, the potential downside was capped. Capital flooded into these new entities. And it turned out that capital was the natural constraint on company size. Before that, those needing capital had to take it out of their own pockets or get it from tight-fisted bankers. Once the capital constraint was removed, companies turned into corporations and exploded in size.

Third, and back to the python analogy, corporations are remorseless in pursuit of a very simple set of goals. Pythons want to reproduce. Corporations want to grow profits for shareholders. Just like the human species, a nation is juggling dozens of objectives, and economic goals are only a few of the many. Simple goals are a tremendous advantage in a Darwinian economic world, in part because…

Fourth, corporations are mobile, both literally and figuratively. If Alabama, say, is doing poorly, the U.S. can’t just close it and walk away, leaving obsolete people and infrastructure behind and moving to Pennsylvania or Arizona. (Although, I admit the idea of simply closing Alabama is appealing.) But a corporation can. And will. In 2007, when war profiteer Halliburton became concerned it might have to compromise its profit objective by obeying U.S. laws, it simply moved to Dubai. But often corporations don’t even need to move physically, they can move “virtually” to a better or less risky place. In every large accounting firm, there exists a unit called “Transfer Pricing,” the whole purpose of which is to create plausible, if not necessarily true, allocations of costs to ensure that a corporation that operates in 20 countries can earn huge profits in 20 countries and effectively pay taxes in none of those. That allows the giant General Electric to use the roads, airports, schools, and stability of the U.S. and pay only nominal taxes here. Corporations even can, in the case of AIG and GM, be insured from the ineptitude of bad leadership without paying for it. By operating across national boundaries, they are able to avoid their rightful obligations to any one nation.

Finally, corporations are stealthy. Take for example annual reports, where “revenues” by segment are reported in such arcane aggregations that the true position in any market or segment is impossible to figure out. Even experienced analysts only learn as much about corporations as corporations want them to know. Of course, we have units of the government, like the SEC, charged with penetrating this secrecy, but the SEC is compromised by lack of resourcing and a relentless assault on their authority from corporations. The corporate world camouflages its motives by promoting the widely-held falsehood that lack of government oversight is essential to successful operation of the free market, and that in turn is essential to freedom and our way of life.

We could keep working the python analogy, comparing gradual constriction of a helpless raccoon to the squeeze on the recent elections created by the Supreme Court’s decision to allow corporations to participate in the political process. But after some point every analogy becomes tiresome, no matter how apt.

My point, though, is a simple one. Corporations are amoral by design. Their objective is not necessarily aligned with the objectives of society overall. They are large, powerful, and will continue to get bigger and more powerful. Their growth in both size and brazenness is not without consequence. Like the Burmese pythons in Florida, it may already be too late to stop them.

I have spent my life working for the world’s largest and most powerful corporations. I’m not anti-corporation. I’m not anti-python either. I just don’t want them loose in the kiddie pool.

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.

Heads up, Denver: Hot Coffee director in town for Wednesday night screening

American propagandists and PR hacks have developed remarkably innovative ways of making words lie. Back in the ’80s we had “freedom fighters,” which was the way we described death squads who were friendly to America. “Pro-life” can be used to describe those who bomb clinics and murder physicians. “Enhanced interrogation,” of course, means “torture.” And so on. In some cases this Orwellian distortion of the language falls under the category of “euphemism,” but the more insidious innovations can be so subtle that we don’t recognize the way the language is being gamed unless we think about it very hard.

One of the most dangerous new lies: “tort reform.” Continue reading

What the hell is "reconditioned" food?

Here’s a bit of a surprise–moldy applesauce going into baby food and school lunches. MSNBC fills us in:

A Washington state fruit processor that supplies the nation’s schools and a baby food maker is under scrutiny by federal health regulators for repackaging applesauce contaminated with several kinds of potentially dangerous, multi-colored molds, has learned.

Repackaging? What the hell is that?

Food and Drug Administration officials this week posted a warning letter to Snokist Growers of Yakima, Wash., saying the company cannot ensure the safety of moldy applesauce and fruit puree that has been reconditioned for human consumption.

Wait–I thought it was just repackaged. What is this? 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

Cuban: "the most patriotic thing you can do"

Mark Cuban is rich. Really, really rich. And like a lot of rich people, he has an opinion on all this talk about government and taxes. A snip:

I’m not against government involvement in times of need. I am for recognizing that big public companies will continue to cut jobs in an effort to prop up stock prices, which in turn stimulates the need for more government involvement. Every cut job by the big companies extracts a cost on the American people in one way or another.

So be Patriotic. Go out there and get rich. Get so obnoxiously rich that when that tax bill comes, your first thought will be to choke on how big a check you have to write. 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 #114: Big Star

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

Nota Bene #113: Seth's Near-Death

“Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #112: GOOOLLLLLLLL

“Freedom of any kind is the worst for creativity.” 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 #106: [no title due to budget cuts]

“Working for a major studio can be like trying to have sex with a porcupine. It’s one prick against thousands.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #103: Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse

“To take people from the music world and give them the same kind of credibility that you give me, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker—that’s like an aberration. I know there’s some young actor sitting in New York or L.A. who’s spent half of his life learning how to act and sacrificing to learn his craft but isn’t going to get his opportunity because of some ‘actor’ who’s been created.” Who said it? Continue reading

Corporation files to run for Congress: important marketing strategy questions remain unanswered

The Supreme Court has decreed that corporations are persons and money is speech, so it was only a matter of time before a company decided to exercise its Constitutional right to run for Congress.

Following the recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to allow unlimited corporate funding of federal campaigns, Murray Hill Inc. today announced it is filing to run for U.S. Congress. “Until now,” Murray Hill Inc. said in a statement, “corporate interests had to rely on campaign contributions and influence-peddling to achieve their goals in Washington. But thanks to an enlightened Supreme Court, now we can eliminate the middle-man and run for office ourselves.” Murray Hill Inc. is believed to be the first “corporate person” to exercise its constitutional right to run for office. Continue reading