Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Engineering and Politics

I had the opportunity to see the movie Lincoln when it first opened in Southlake.  It is a very good movie with a key message for engineering.  See the movie.  And the message?  Engineering needs to do a much better job understanding and interfacing with the political classes.  We also need a much firmer understanding of the political process.

Politics plays a clear role in supporting, funding, and executing key engineering endeavors.  Philosophers think.  Economists model.  Managers plan.  Doctors heal.  Engineers build.  In the United States, all of this thinking, modeling, planning, healing, and building is typically done in a political environment.  An environment of "Government by the people."  Where elected representatives must learn to excel at maneuvering.  Which gets us to a key observation - - politicians maneuver.
David Brooks points this out in his excellent November 23, 2012 column in the New York Times - - Why We Love Politics:

"We live in an anti-political moment, when many people - young people especially - think politics is a low, nasty, corrupt and usually fruitless business.  It's much nobler to do community service or just avoid all that putrid noise."

I hope everybody who share this anti-political mood will go out to see "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner.  The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere.  You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty.  But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others - if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypo-critical.
The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning.  Spielberg's "Lincoln" gets this point.  The hero has high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality." 
Engineers need to get more comfortable with the paradox of "high vision and low cunning" and the politics of fluid maneuvering.  Engineering must place their faith in the process - - a process which can be marked as slow, deliberate, and incremental transformation.  For a successful political maneuver, timing is everything.

In my opinion, the best place to start a study of politics is the insightful political biography.  I would recommend three:
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

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