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FRONTIERS - by Mark Raleigh

Let’s Elect the 1 Percent!

More no-nonsense engineers in Congress would

make Washington work better.


Think what has happened with the Internet — which advanced at a snail’s pace until 15 years ago. - Vivek WadhwaElection season is here, the time when we decide who will occupy our political offices. Our nation has seen ongoing economic woes and tensions between socioeconomic classes, and these weigh heavily on voters’ minds. As a middle-class citizen and an engineering student, I have made my decision: I want to vote for the 1 percent.

The 1 percent can be effective public servants. They possess the ability to think critically, allowing them to solve problems for the 99 percent. They can analyze complex systems. Moreover, they are known for objectivity and systematic assessment of evidence before reaching conclusions. We need more leaders with the no-nonsense qualities of the 1 percent.

To be clear, I am not talking about the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. Instead, I am referring to engineers, who currently represent about 1 percent of elected officials in the U.S. Congress but 10 percent of the American workforce.

Inviting engineers into politics may seem as bizarre an idea as letting bicycle mechanics manage your household affairs. Yet engineers have skills that are fundamentally relevant to politics. Like politicians, engineers operate in a realm where budgets must be planned and followed, and where reaching consensus means making trade-offs between multiple objectives. While engineers lack the law degrees and business expertise that many politicians possess, they are wired to solve problems and improve efficiency.

If more engineers held office, perhaps they could unfreeze our hopelessly stalemated political machinery. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that Democrats and Republicans have become increasingly polarized over recent years. If engineers can identify opportunities for political compromise in the same way that they negotiate multiple constraints in technical design, then they might broker bipartisan agreements. Of course, this presumes engineers do not sheepishly follow a party line or engage in political shenanigans; they are humans after all.

We also need more engineers in office because several modern challenges are rooted in technical realities. These include the looming impacts of climate change, the drive for energy independence, nuclear security, and the infrastructure and resource issues related to global population growth. Politicians rely on committee specialists to analyze and distill technical information, but important considerations may be lost in translation or fall on deaf ears because of political bias. The intersection between technical knowledge and policy is vital for cohesive decision making. More elected engineers could help ensure a robust interface and expertise.

Despite their potential benefits as policymakers, I don’t expect to find many engineers on the November ballot. Yet many engineers are passionate about politics. Why do just 1 percent serve in Congress?

One reason is the culture of our profession. A political hiatus might as well be professional exile, since the engineer inevitably will “lose practice” designing buildings during his or her term, while the researcher will exit the paper-publishing race. This prospect scares engineers. If more engineers are to participate in politics, a culture shift is needed in industry, universities, and research agencies to accommodate political endeavors. Strangely, many institutions are unforgiving to employees with political aspirations, even though as officeholders those individuals might champion federal investments in infrastructure and research programs.

Public perception about the electability of engineers is another reason. With such a small sample size, there are no data to suggest the effectiveness of a Congress with more engineers. In countries like China, by contrast, it is not uncommon to have engineers and technocrats occupy the majority of top positions. A wave of courageous and charismatic engineers in office might shift perceptions and inspire other engineers to become active participants in the political process at all levels.

This grazes the surface of an admittedly complex proposition. While engineers are no silver bullet, having enough of the right engineers could help alleviate some political inefficiencies. My father often says that the world needs more engineers and fewer lawyers. Perhaps we should consider whether our political leadership needs more of the 1 percent.

 

Mark Raleigh is a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington.

 


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