Widgets Magazine


The Engineer-Politician

The United States needs more technically proficient members in Congress. The government has failed to make sound technical legislation for the web and intellectual property law over the last several years. Perhaps the answer lies in entrusting the technical population with civic duty, as well as the public as a whole.

With the end of the government closure, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) appears to be returning to Senate. The bill attempts to open legal channels between the government and private companies to share information regarding cyberterrorism. When the bill was introduced a year ago, it met fierce resistance, many claiming that it was worse than the highly controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). It was killed in Senate, and now campaigning to block CISPA has begun once again.

According to a release by Congress, there were a grand total of “three physicists, one chemist, six engineers including a biomedical engineer, and one microbiologist” among the 541 members of the Congress in 2010, accounting for about two percent of the United States’ legislature. In contrast, approximately 36.4 percent of college-educated citizens have science or engineering degrees. The last American engineer-president was Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), a mining engineer.

American engineers have no compelling reasons to engage in politics. Socioeconomically, lawyers often benefit from the time they spend in the political world, gaining relevant practice and connections. It is also viable for lawyers and political scientists to enter government directly from school. Neither rings true for engineers.

At the same time, as of 2009, engineering was the hardest job to fill in America and unemployment rates for engineers in general was below a third of the national average.

The divide between politics and the technical public highlights a root cause of why lawyers dominate Congress: Politics is a vocation. Politics has a well-defined career path that involves interning for politicians or institutions like think tanks and lobbies. In contrast, Joseph Schlesinger, political science professor at Michigan State University, claims that amateur politicians—those who join politics without formal political background—are driven by the policy goals they wish to enact, whereas professional politicians are motivated predominantly by the pursuit of power and political ambition.

Take SOPA. In late 2011, the issue of intellectual property rights in the Internet age took the center stage when Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), a 64-year-old lawyer and former ranch manager from Texas, proposed SOPA. The bill attempted to limit the potential for copyright infringement by making it a criminal offense to stream or otherwise present copyrighted content online. It forced payment and advertisement companies, search engines and Internet service providers to cut off services to sites accused of copyright infringement, making offenders’ sites inaccessible.

Many of the largest tech companies in the world temporarily shuttered their own websites in protest. Seventy corporations and lobby groups petitioned Congress to temporarily halt discussions of new intellectual property laws altogether. Those bills were killed as well.

If the legislators behind SOPA failed to understand the bills’ technological and cultural implications, they should have had better technical education. Providing expert technical advice is not enough; as Ian Wright wrote for the Engineering Management Journal, politicians often fail to request technical advice since they do not always recognize the complex implications of technical policies.

On the other hand, if those legislators were cognizant of SOPA’s flaws, they do not deserve to guide national policy. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) & MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) are known to have donated more than four times more money to lobby for SOPA than Silicon Valley did to oppose it.

Having engineers and scientists act as politicians would not necessarily solve the underlying problems that cause widespread corruption in the U.S. government. But it would at least encourage people with less political ambition to participate in legislation, and it would encourage better technical legislation.

I believe that there must be a more fundamental change to promote a better government that isn’t specific to engineers: Politics should be viewed as a public service rather than a profession. Because of political ambition, the political sphere has become as much of a business as any other occupation, and with that comes the potential for widespread corruption and occupational, racial, sexual and political homogeneity in government at all levels.

Ohio State University Political Science Professor Samuel C. Patterson asserted that “one of the firmest generalizations about the social composition of legislatures is that they do not mirror their populations.” Hoping for a technical Congress may be ambitious, but I think it can be an important part of reforming the broken U.S. government.

Contact Omar Diab at odiab ‘at’ stanford.edu

  • Tex

    You believe in Pixie Dust and Unicorns too, right?

  • osdiab

    That’s not the spirit! Sure, it’s ambitious and wouldn’t happen in a weekend, but given the ever rising dissatisfaction in government it’s not impossible 🙂

  • PoliticallyAwareCSMajor

    This piece is staggeringly naïve and smacks of techie arrogance. Stop reading TechCrunch and try taking a political science or public policy course.

  • Engineer MO

    One of my favorite quotes:
    “All we know about the new economic world tells us that nations which train engineers will prevail over those which train lawyers. No nation has ever sued its way to greatness. ”
    ― Richard Lamm