Responding to a small businessman who says he did it without any government help AT ALL

A few days ago I offered up Art Pope and Pat McCrory leading North Carolina into the 19th century, a collection of thoughts on the state I was born and raised in. The comment thread wandered a bit, as they tend to do when you say things other people don’t want to hear, and eventually one commenter – a Stan Lee Harrison – weighed in with this:

I run a small business [without any assistance from the state or Federal governments] and interact with customers every day.

Wow, you’re probably thinking. A truly self-made man, eschewing handouts and welfare state charity and Obama-style Socialism and everything else that the authentic Randite is vehemently opposed to. Up until they aren’t, anyway.

I got to thinking about Mr. Harrison’s remarkable claim and decided that it deserved a serious response. In some cases I’m skeptical – can’t help it, I’m afflicted with an inherently critical mind and have never been able to do much about it – and in others I have honest questions. If he can do it, maybe I can, too. When it comes to my perennially underwhelming pursuit of financial solvency, I’m always willing to learn.

What follows is a slightly revised version of my answer, which has so far received no response.

—–

Dear Mr. Harrison:

Since you “run a small business [without any assistance from the state or Federal governments] and interact with customers every day,” I have to admit that I’m having a hard time trying to guess what kind of company this is. I mean, it obviously has to be home-based, because you don’t use any state or federally constructed or maintained transportation infrastructure. This means you don’t make a product that has to be moved via roads and highways, or rail, or air. It can’t make use of the maritime system, which relies on government ports and management. You have to be working from home because you can’t be driving around on the roads that the rest of us use. You certainly don’t fly to visit clients in other cities because without the government airplanes would be crashing in midair every day. Amtrak is obviously out.

Not sure how you’re interacting with customers, either. Pretty much every corner of our communication system requires government regulation of some sort because if it didn’t you’ve have such a morass of unstandardized channels that nobody could talk to each other. And wait a damned minute. You’re using the Internet right now. Do you you turn it off as soon as you start work? If not, I’m going to need you to explain how the Internet was erected by private entrepreneurs with no government help at all. If you aren’t e-mailing your customers and you don’t have a Web site or a social media presence, I really don’t envy your marketing director.

I also assume that your home office is pretty spartan. Getting no help from the government and all, there’s no electricity or running water. Your cave must be in a gated community because you receive no protection whatsoever from law enforcement and if it weren’t for the high fence and the concertina wire and the private security force your home office would have been looted by now. Not sure what you’re going to do if you’re ever ripped off, though, because your only recourse (short of going vigilante) is the government court system.

I’m guessing that you don’t have any employees, because in your corner of the world you’d almost certainly have to hire people who at some point attended public schools. And forget college. Given the cost of higher ed these days they’d probably have had no choice but to rely on federal grants or scholarships and/or federal student loans. Or maybe you just hire uneducated people. Of course, that kind of mitigates against success, doesn’t it?

(Wait – you didn’t go to a public school, did you?)

Let’s see. You had to have been born rich. Taking a bank loan means federal and/or state influence on the system to assure that you weren’t scalped. And I’m especially wondering about how your company is incorporated. Every business of any magnitude makes use of a limited liability structure. If it weren’t for that, you’d be bankrupt and homeless the first time you screwed something up. And let’s be honest, we all make mistakes. In this same vein, if you have customers, that probably means you have contracts of some sort. How do you enforce them?

Also – do you keep your money in a bank or under your mattress? If in a bank, are your funds insured by the FDIC?

Since you aren’t in jail (you aren’t writing from jail, are you?) I’m guessing that you pay taxes (or at the least you have an accountant who helps you avoid paying them). From your tone, I’m guessing you’re the sort of person who takes advantage of every single deduction legally available to you. That’s a government thing – you could get a new car “for business use” and write it off, whereas I can’t unless I’m also pimping that government system.

What else, what else? Oh, right. Duh. How do your customers pay you and how do you pay your bills? Since you eschew any sort of federal support, that means you aren’t using the dollar. Do you accept payment in chickens?

As a side note, you never died as a result of rubella, smallpox, measles, or any of the other diseases that government immunization programs have mostly eradicated. (I’m assuming you aren’t a zombie here, although I admit, it would be pretty damned cool if you were.) You probably didn’t have polio, either, right? What other life-threatening medical conditions did you never contract and die from as a result of federally driven research into prevention and treatment? Because when it comes to running a successful business, such as yours, there’s really no substitute for being, you know, alive.

Also, does your business market a product or service that emerged in some way from federally funded research? There’s a lot of things that we sell that we wouldn’t have without those programs. I’m including in this research conducted at private universities which received substantial government support, like my alma mater, Wake Forest, which as I’m sure you know is one of the nation’s premier private institutions (Go Deacs!).

In conclusion, I cannot imagine what sort of business you run. I can’t think of single company that doesn’t get “any assistance from the state or Federal governments.” Not. One. I can’t even imagine how such a thing is possible.

So I hope you’ll fill me in. This seems like a great opportunity to learn something valuable that I might be able to use in my own career. Like every smart business guy, I’m always looking for an edge.

Thanks for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Sam Smith

Libertarians and engineers should embrace industrial climate disruption, not deny it

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment3Part Five of a series

Industrial climate disruption presents challenges to libertarians and engineers. As we saw in Part Three of this series, the likely policy responses to industrial climate disruption represent a threat to libertarian values, specifically the moral ideal of “negative” liberty. And we saw in Part Four that many engineers consider industrial climate disruption a threat to their jobs and to their employers, and industrial climate disruption runs counter to many engineer’s psychological need for certainty (as discussed in Part Two). And we saw how cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and motivated reasoning can lead both libertarians and engineers to deny the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting industrial climate disruption.

But not all libertarians or all engineers are industrial climate disruption deniers. Many have reviewed the evidence and concluded that greenhouse gases emissions by industry is the best explanation for all the facts related to climate disruption. Some have simply chosen to trust the experts. And others have concluded that it’s simply good personal and professional policy to plan for the worst – at least that way you’re prepared for whatever comes your way and any surprises are good surprises.

But these aren’t the only good reasons why libertarians and engineers, both as groups and as individuals, should embrace industrial climate disruption. Denying the reality of industrial climate disruption won’t get either group a seat at the negotiating table, but engagement might. There’s also a lot of money to be made adapting to industrial climate disruption and mitigating its causes. And the sooner we start working on the problem, the cheaper it will be in the long run.

Libertarians: fight, not flight

When something that you hold dear is threatened, there are essentially only two responses. You can stand and fight, or you can flee. Industrial climate disruption threatens the values and livelihoods of many libertarians, and many have chosen to flee to the perceived safety of denial. But that safety is illusory, as the crazy weather of 2012 (the increased incidence of extreme weather phenomena has been projected by climate models for years now) and the ongoing global temperature record demonstrate.

While the the threat to libertarian values could reasonably justify the denial of industrial climate disruption by a significant majority of libertarians, the best way to ensure that your values are protected is not to flee, but rather to confront the threat. Denial won’t prevent the enactment of policies that are a threat to the “negative” liberty valued by libertarians, but engagement might. At a minimum, engagement with liberals and conservatives who also accept the reality of industrial climate disruption will ensure that libertarians have a seat at the negotiating table, something that flat-out denial is unlikely to provide. After all, libertarians are only about 10% of the U.S. population – if the other 90% came to an agreement on their own, libertarians could find themselves, and their values, steamrolled.

There are all sorts of policies that are presently being considered as ways to adapt to and to mitigate the causes of industrial climate disruption. Most of them are potential threats to economic liberty, defined as the right of a person to spend his wealth however he sees fit. The Environmental Protection Agency has already put in place regulations to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and the regulations have survived review by the DC Court of Appeals (and are likely to survive Supreme Court review as well). California has implemented a cap-and-trade scheme, and some economists and scientists are calling for outright carbon taxes. The cap-and-trade scheme is the least disruptive to libertarian values, but the other two have their proponents and both are more disruptive to people’s economic liberty. If more libertarians were involved in the process, a cap-and-trade system that minimizes economic disruption would become more likely than highly disruptive carbon taxes or regulations and the associated fees and fines.

With respect to being able to live your life however you see fit (lifestyle liberty), the costs of addressing industrial climate disruption will also have an impact. Any method that prices CO2 will necessarily increase energy prices. This will increase the costs of products, especially those manufactured overseas and/or trucked long distances as the price of marine bunker fuel and diesel increase. People will probably travel less for vacations as well. And the cost of living wherever you choose will also go up, as insurance rates skyrocket (or insurance simply goes away) for property near sea level, on floodplains, or in wildfire prone areas.

Industrial climate disruption will continue to threaten libertarian values so long as it threatens human welfare and the global economy. If libertarians want their ideology to survive the crucible of industrial climate disruption, they’ll have to engage. And the sooner that engagement happens, the less damage the libertarian ideology will suffer.

Captain Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation (CBS)

Captain Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation (CBS)

Engineers: engage

Engagement is also the best approach for engineers, and those engineers who are not also libertarians will probably find engaging easier than most libertarians will. Partly this is because engineering is a professional discipline rather than an ideology, but it’s also partly a result of the corporate environment in which engineers work and that inculcates them with many of its values.

Corporations value short-term profits more than anything else, with one notable exception – staying in business. If it’s a question between either providing dividends this quarter or investing in the company so that it’s still in business several years from now, smart companies always choose to invest in themselves. That’s part of why engineers are asked to design new products – markets change, and corporations who fail to provide what the new market demands risk going out of business.

Engineers working in product development are expected to adapt to new market realities all the time. Often the adaptation is as simple as updating a prior design to a new set of requirements – different temperature ranges, different operating voltages, different types of materials, etc. Occasionally adapting requires doing something completely new, and many engineers live for that kind of intellectually stimulating challenge. Most engineers will find engaging with industrial climate disruption no more difficult than updating their requirements and initial assumptions. Once that’s done, the engineers will pick up the new changes and run with them. The challenge will be convincing engineers that their experience and expertise may no longer be applicable (depending on the industry and engineer) and that they may have to change career paths in order to adapt professionally to a new, climate disrupted reality.

Ultimately, though, engineers respond to challenges, and just as industrial climate disruption is perhaps the most important issue that modern humanity has ever faced, so too is it one of humanity’s greatest challenges. Engineers who can move beyond denial and engage with the creation of solutions will likely find the process remarkably rewarding.

Mining profits from industrial climate disruption

Beyond needing to fight for their values or rising to meet new technical challenges, both libertarians and engineers should engage with industrial climate disruption because there is a huge amount of money to be made in the process.

Many libertarians are economic or financial types who make their money trading stocks, commodities, etc. Assuming that a cap-and-trade market system is implemented nationally or globally instead of carbon taxes or direct regulations, that market is going to be largely the same as any other commodity market. As such libertarians will be able to buy and sell carbon credits, creating carbon liquidity much as traders create financial liquidity in the financial markets today. But this opportunity only materializes if a cap-and-trade market is created instead of carbon taxes or direct emission regulations.

For those libertarians who work in other fields, the all-encompassing nature of industrial climate disruption will create opportunities for anyone who has the courage to grab them. Libertarians working in construction can make money insulating homes and installing solar panels on rooftops. Libertarian farmers can make money figuring out how to grow crops using less water and fertilizer and then marketing those methods to fellow farmers nationwide. Libertarians working in the energy industry can make money by financing new power lines to transport renewable electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed. And libertarians in transportation can make money by providing new, low carbon emitting cars, trucks, tractors, aircraft, and ships to carry people and goods from one place to another. But each of these opportunities requires that the individual libertarians working in these industries stop denying the reality of industrial climate disruption.

Engineers have at least as great an opportunity to make money as libertarians do. After all, who do you think is going to design all those products for all those industries listed above? Engineers are going to be the ones figuring out how to get PCs to consume even less power than they already do. Engineers are going to be the ones figuring out how to turn small-scale carbon capture demonstration projects into full-scale installations at coal and natural gas power plants. Engineers are going to be the ones figuring out how to boost the efficiencies of solar panels by combining photovoltaic panels with passive solar water heating and at a price point that consumers can afford. And so on.

Engineers excel when given a problem to solve and a set of parameters within which to solve it. And the engineers who are the best at it will make a great deal of money in the process. But to do so, they have to move beyond denying industrial climate disruption. After all, just because an engineer will to work on a project he doesn’t believe in, that doesn’t mean he’ll be motivated to do his best work that way. But give an engineer a project that makes him think “this is going to be totally awesome” and he’ll figure out a way to move Heaven and Earth for you.

Pay now, or pay a lot more later

Not everyone can be lured by wealth and a good, high paying job with good job satisfaction into changing their mind about denying the reality of industrial climate disruption. For some, avoiding the anticipated economic costs of industrial climate disruption is a greater motivator. Economists have been saying for years now that it will cost less to mitigating industrial climate disruption than the damage done to the global economy by doing nothing (or delaying action for decades). Essentially, most economists believe that the cost of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable (and possibly nuclear) sources of energy is much lower than the cost of sea level rise on property values, rebuilding communities built in floodplains, losses to crops due to drought and pests, and the disruption of the global economy due to tens or hundreds of millions of migrating climate refugees, among others.

There are fundamental disagreements among economists about the “correct” way to account for multi-generational issues like industrial climate disruption, with some economists (Nordhaus for one) approaching the problem strictly from a utilitarian perspective while others approach the problem from a “minimal regret” perspective. The utilitarians tend to weigh the economic status of people who are alive today much higher than they weigh the economic status of unknown future generations. This can result in a situation where you could mathematically argue that it would be OK for humanity to go extinct ten generations from now so long as the people alive today aren’t inconvenienced by having to pay more for gasoline. It’s not a coincidence that libertarians tend find themselves among the utilitarians, given that Iyer et al found that libertarians are utilitarian and also value themselves more highly than they do “generic others” like hypothetical great, great, great grandchildren.

The “minimal regret” economists, on the other hand, tend to approach the problem more holistically, applying value not just to a standard of living, but also to the quality of that standard of living. They also tend to apply different discount rates to different aspects of human goods and experience, and they try to incorporate the needs of human survival and health into their economic models. But at the extreme end of this end of the spectrum, “minimal regret” economics can mathematically conclude that destroying the global economy today is acceptable to ensure that at least some of humanity survives ten generations hence. The inclusive nature of the “minimal regret” economic models makes their conclusions more likely to be robust than utilitarian models, and it’s the models of the “minimal regret” school of thought that indicate the costs of doing nothing are much higher than the costs of mitigating industrial climate disruption.

(Scott Ambler)

(Scott Ambler)

But even if you reject the economic models and instead ascribe to utilitarian economics, there is a business concept that makes the same basic argument. In business, the costs of making changes to a project is very low early in the project’s lifecycle. But as the project moves through its various stages, it becomes more and more expensive to make changes until, finally, making changes simply isn’t possible at any price.

Businesspeople and engineers who work in product development tend to understand this idea almost instinctively. During requirement definition, the cost of making a change is maybe a few hours to updated a few documents. Once the design is complete the cost of making a change includes a few hours for several people to update a lot more documents. Once something physical is created, the cost increases even more to include changing hardware, possibly even throwing out the original design and starting from scratch. And if a change is needed after the product has been delivered, it may need to be recalled or it may not even be possible to implement the change at all.

We can look at adapting to and mitigating the causes of industrial climate disruption as a set of projects not too different from any other. As an example, adapting New York City to rising sea level may require sea walls around the harbor, major filling of land and reconstruction of buildings on the newly raised ground, or even the partial abandonment of low-lying areas such as those that were most affected by Superstorm Sandy. The sooner this process starts, the cheaper it will be to implement. First, inflation means that the longer a major construction project takes, the more the construction materials will cost. Second, the longer the process takes, the more likely it becomes that another another storm like Sandy sweeps into New York City and does tens or hundreds of billions more dollars in direct and indirect damage – damage that could have been dramatically reduced had the adaptation strategy been in place.

On a smaller scale, this same business axiom explains part of why you shop around for the right solar panels to put on your roof. Not only are you looking for a good deal, but you’re also making sure that you won’t want to change your mind later. After all, if the wrong panels are already on your roof when you discover they’re wrong, you’ll be lucky to get away with only having to pay someone to come out to remove the wrong panels and then pay to have the right panels put back up.

According to national polls, about 84% of all libertarians deny the reality of industrial climate disruption, and while there’s no data about the number of engineers who are similarly in denial, there are a lot of people who identify themselves as engineers on major denial websites. While it makes sense that both groups would feel threatened by industrial climate disruption, albeit for different reasons, both groups should embrace the overwhelming science and data and work toward solutions instead of denying the problem. There will probably never be a greater challenge to solve, or a greater opportunity to make money from creative solutions, than the challenges and opportunities posed by industrial climate disruption. And the sooner the solutions kick in, the less damage will be done to libertarian values, business, and the global economy.

Over the last few weeks, we have in investigated why there are so many libertarians and engineers among the ranks of industrial climate disruption deniers. We’ve looked at the values and personalities of both groups and we’ve looked at how those values and personalities lead so many libertarians and engineers to deny the reality of industrial climate disruption. And we’ve looked at why, as a matter of pragmatism, both groups should embrace industrial climate disruption instead of denying it.

There are some known areas of contention in climate science, such as the effects of clouds on global climate. But those few remaining areas of contention are very unlikely to change the scientific conclusion – human industry is emitting greenhouse gases and those gases are and will be largely responsible for disrupting the Earth’s climate. However understandable it might be for a libertarian or engineer to hunt for and cling to the few scraps of data that confirm their existing biases, doing so is no longer rational. There are just too many other fields of scientific endeavor that would have to be largely incorrect for the conclusions of industrial climate disruption to be wrong.

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.

Dear "small government" conservatives: that Thoreau quote doesn't mean what you think it means

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say. How true, how true, especially when it comes to reducing the wisdom of brilliant, complex minds to their pithiest quotes. In a recent thread on what has become of the GOP, one commenter went all-in with Henry David Thoreau’s famous (and greatly abused) edict: that government is best which governs the least. (Thoreau was actually quoting someone else, but he endorsed the idea, so let’s go with it.)

As I explained at the time, I used to be an enthusiastic young Republican and I was known to quote that line myself. Granted, I was just spouting something I’d heard others say – I hadn’t actually read Civil Disobedience. But by gods, it sounded good. It’s brief, it’s clever, it has the smell of truthiness about it and it comes with the credibility that automatically attends canonical high school reading assignments, even if we hated them at the time.

But there are a couple of problems with the quote. Continue reading

The most dangerous idea ever: why the tea party is right after all. Sort of.

The American econo-political system has always been a dangerous proposition, an egg balanced on a knife blade six feet above a concrete floor.

Sure, most countries have elements of the American solution. Many countries now have peaceful exchanges of power decided by voters. Most Western nations have pretty strong protections for individual rights, and in many cases, those are stronger than our Bill of Rights. Most have moved away from centrally planned economies.

But we were the ones who first put it all together. Just as Alfred Nobel figured out how to mix volatile nitroglycerine with diatomaceous earth to create the equally powerful but more stable explosive dynamite, the Founders managed to take an inherently dangerous set of ideas and make them stable. You need only look at the French Revolution to see what can happen when those same ideas are dropped on a concrete floor. Continue reading

GBTV? Glenn Beck on the Internet? All Glenn, all the time?

Would you pay between $4.95 and $9.95 a month to watch conservative talker Glenn Beck for two hours a day on the Internet?

Beck will launch, with partner Mercury Radio Arts, GBTV, an online video network, on Sept. 12. Here’s Beck himself in a five-minute pitch describing his “global plans” and how he will be “champion of man’s freedom” for the mere cost of a “cup of coffee in today’s world”:

Whether Beck is certifiably insane is not the issue here: Rather, he and his partner need to insure that revenues exceed costs. Now that he’s leaving the ready mega-megaphone of Fox News on June 30, that’s not a certainty.
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GOP Madness 2012: Cruella DeVille Bracket results…but wait, there's more

Prussian BlueMaybe I should have seen the Huckabee thing coming. For the first time in Huck’s life he’s got a hustle that pays well and doesn’t require him to hug sweaty overweight people. He’d be nuts to give it up. But whenever politicians pass up a chance at power, even when it makes logical sense, my Spider-senses go crazy. Might be more to this than meets the eye.

As predicted, Newt’s big mouth and untidy personal life continue to be the gifts that keep on giving for his opponents, and sure enough, his tiff with Paul Ryan and a $500,000 tab at Tiffany’s have caused him to tumble to the bottom of the latest Zogby poll. (Of course, that same poll has Herman Cain leading, which underscores that no one has put a lock on this thing. It’s no coincidence that many of the early “contenders” are media personalities like Cain looking for a little cheap press.)

And it looks like the decision to withstand the pressure from commenters and leave Mitch “Placeholder” Daniels off the bracket was a good one. Continue reading

The American Parliament: our nation’s 10 political parties

Part two in a series.

Forgive me for abstracting and oversimplifying a bit, but one might argue that American politics breaks along the following 10 lines:

  • Social Conservatives
  • Neocons
  • Business Conservatives
  • Traditional Conservatives (there’s probably a better term, but I’m thinking of old-line Western land and water rights types)
  • Blue Dog Democrats
  • New Democrats
  • Progressives Continue reading

Heartland Institute VIPs misrepresent facts again

On January 24, Mark Boslough of the University of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories wrote an op-ed in the Santa Fe New Mexican in which he criticized the Heartland Institute and Harrison Schmitt, a former astronaut and retired geologist turned climate disruption denier. In response, the Heartland Institute ran several posts on their blog and submitted an op-ed to the New Mexican from the Institute’s president.

The blog posts and the op-ed each contain multiple errors and misrepresentations that are in character for an organization that has a thoroughly documented history of manipulating facts and misrepresenting science to serve their ideology. Continue reading

Yo, GOP: Slash regulation? Or spend up to $27 million to save a life?

Many of the seats the Democrats lost in Congress can be attributed to a tea-party and GOP-influenced desire to shrink the size of the federal government. Presumed goals of conservative and GOP winners: Reduce federal spending. Shrink the deficit. Lessen government’s intrusion into people’s lives.

Well, let’s see what these make-government-smaller politicians do with a cost-benefit analysis of this proposal to further intrude into the lives of people who drive.

By 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants every passenger vehicle sold in the United States to have a rear-view camera. That’s available now as an option for many vehicles. The camera displays what’s behind the vehicle on the navigation screen in the dashboard.

Reason: The agency says back-up accidents kill 228 people a year and injure 17,000. More significant reason: About 100 of those killed are children.
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The road to liberty is bewildered by fascists, oh and American "libertarians" like Rand Paul

I saw a New York Times headline reading “The Randslide and Its Discontents” and assumed it was about the South African currency (which I hadn’t known was in trouble … it isn’t).

This introduced me to one Rand Paul, a self-declared “libertarian”? I use the term by which he calls himself advisedly because that sure as shit ain’t my definition. How does one get to be a libertarian and still oppose a woman’s right to choose an abortion? That’s a contradiction. I didn’t have to go much deeper to find more.

Paul is articulate and hard-line. When he says he is antigovernment, he means it. Unlike McConnell, he wants to end all earmarks, including agricultural subsidies for a state that thrives on them. (He does vow to preserve Medicare payments, however; they contribute to his income as an ophthalmologist.) He wants to shut down the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve. Though a social conservative who would outlaw all abortions, he believes the federal government should leave drug enforcement to the states.

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More sloppy thinking about secession

Chris Hedges, normally a pretty bright guy, has a puff piece about some nice, thoughtful secessionists over at Truthdig. As always, the comments are entertainment enough in their own right, and are worth a look (although only one commentator seems familiar with the data from the Tax Foundation, which even Hedges doesn’t cite). Like other secessionist pieces we have commented on in the past, there’s an air of unreality here, as if we’ve fallen into some parallel universe where actions don’t have consequences. It’s an interesting piece nonetheless, because it’s unusual among this kind of reporting to actually engage in some of the logical, indeed, unarguable, rationales for secession. But it’s the wrong solution for the problem that the intellectual secessionists like Thomas Naylor and Kirpatrick Sale want to address. And it turns into an attempt to give an intellectual veneer to a very ugly phenomenon, although I suspect that was not Hedges’ intention.
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"States Rights" runs ahead of reason, once again

This morning the New York Times carries as its lead story something with this headline: States’ Rights Is Rallying Cry of Resistance for Lawmakers. And the article is replete with examples of state lawmakers passing measures that would, in theory, limit the reach of the federal government. So, just to repeat the examples that The Times leads with (having done our work for us already):

Gov. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, a Republican, signed a bill into law on Friday declaring that the federal regulation of firearms is invalid if a weapon is made and used in South Dakota.

On Thursday, Wyoming’s governor, Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, signed a similar bill for that state. The same day, Oklahoma’s House of Representatives approved a resolution that Oklahomans should be able to vote on a state constitutional amendment allowing them to opt out of the federal health care overhaul.

In Utah, lawmakers embraced states’ rights with a vengeance in the final days of the legislative session last week. One measure said Congress and the federal government could not carry out health care reform, not in Utah anyway, without approval of the Legislature. Another bill declared state authority to take federal lands under the eminent domain process. A resolution asserted the “inviolable sovereignty of the State of Utah under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.”

The Times article points out that legal and constitutional scholars are pretty much of the view that this is mostly a bunch of hot air. But that doesn’t seem to be deterring state lawmakers from shouting a lot. Continue reading

Welcome to Colorado Springs, America's teabagger paradise

Colorado is a beautiful place and it always ranks right at the top of those most desirable places to live rankings (heck, a new poll says the People’s Republic of Boulder is the happiest place in America), but be clear about one thing before you pack up the family to head this way: a consistent voting majority of our citizens are butt-stupid when it comes to taxes. We’re the ones who blazed the trail for the “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” (TABOR) movement, and we’ve been paying a steep price for it ever since. For instance:

  • Under TABOR, Colorado declined from 35th to 49th in the nation in K-12 spending as a percentage of personal income.
  • Colorado’s average per-pupil funding fell by more than $400 relative to the national average. Continue reading

Nota Bene #101: Your Pal, Mike S.

“The guys who are shooting films now are technically brilliant, but there’s no content in their films. I marvel at what I see and wish I could have done a shot like that. But shots are secondary for my films, and with some of these films, it’s all about the shots. What’s the point? I’m not sure people know what points to make.” Who said it? Continue reading

They're winning. We're losing. Why?

They’re winning. They’ve been winning for a long time. They’ve convinced us that the national conversation is not about a contest over power and control but rather about twisted definitions of patriotism, morality, the rights of the individual, property rights, and family values. They’re winning because they are ever more in control of the vocabulary of that conversation. They have invested heavily in winning memes — ideas and beliefs parasitically encoded into the politically and culturally unaware.

They recognized long ago that those who control the definitions of words rule the conversation. They know that rigorous repetition of their memes is akin to selling any product — advertise, advertise, advertise. That meme machine, usually cranked up biennually, now operates full time. In 30-second, televised chunks, the memes spew forth in every market. The messages are paid for by political organizations and single-minded groups quietly but heavily underwritten by those who wield wealth and power as a blacksmith’s hammer, bending comprehension by the electorate over an anvil. In hour-long, prime-time, broadcast soliloquies, their public voices ritualistically denigrate that which does not serve The Meme.
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Nota Bene #95: STFU

Gonna try something different Continue reading

"I'm not going to shake the hand of Hitler Youth." (Updated)

Update: A complete transcript of the encounter with Wessel and Monckton can be found at the Guardian environment blog.

According to Kevin Grandia at DeSmogBlog, climate disruption denier Lord Monckton was talking with a number of youths when he was approached by a couple of other youths he recognized from the Americans for Prosperity event that was temporarily taken over by youth climate activists yesterday. When he was asked to shake one of the activists’ hand, he responded

No, no. I’m not going to shake the hand of Hitler Youth. I’m sorry.

The activist in question, Ben Wessel, is Jewish, and his grandparents escaped the Nazis. Furthermore, Monckton’s remarks yesterday could have been considered intemperate as they were made in the heat of the moment. That Monckton would repeat the charge today when he’s not being shouted over suggests that he truly believes the youth activists to be equal to the Hitler Youth. Continue reading

Sustainability, localism, community and the dignity of work: In praise of Wendell Berry

Here’s what Ken Kesey had to say about Wendell Berry:

“Wendell Berry is the Sargeant York charging unnatural odds across our no-man’s-land of ecology. Conveying the same limber innocence of young Gary Cooper, Wendell advances on the current crop of Krauts armed with naught but his pen and his mythic ridgerunner righteousness. One after the other he picks them off, from the flying bridges of their pleasure boats as they roar through his native Kentucky rivers, from beneath the hard hats in the Hazard county strip mines, from the swivel chairs in the Pentagon where they weigh the various ways to wage war on all forms of enemy life beyond the end of their own friendly chin. He’s a crackshot essayist and, for those given to capture, a genial and captivating poet. He boasts a formidable arsenal of novels, speeches, articles, stories and poems from his outpost in one of the world’s most ravaged battlefields where he writes the good fight and tends his family and his honeybees. Consider him an ally.”

The thing is, Kesey said this in 1971. Continue reading

Notes from the end of a long, strange trip

Steal Your Face 2For an early 90’s “Dead Head” i was probably among the exceptions. Never mind my cynicism, bitterness and general distaste for joining anything. I was second generation. The turn on was a peer playing “Workingman’s Dead” and me realizing that i already knew the words in my mother’s voice. My first tape was scavenged from my stepfather’s (i’ve known him my entire life, only the context of the relationship has changed) tape collection. 12/14/71 at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, he’d been at the show. It wasn’t rebellion in my family. But before my first show, an honorary uncle sat me down for a pretty serious talk. He stressed that seeing the Dead wasn’t about getting wasted; it wasn’t the scene. It was about seeing the show. The rest of it just came along with the communal-libertarian way it was.

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