Should Engineers Rule The World?

It seems the famous economist Thorstein Veblen, who lived from 1857 to 1949, thought so.   He wrote a very popular book which is called ‘The Theory Of The Leisure Class.’  I just read about it today in one of my economic history books, and definitely need to buy it.

Unlike many economists who came before him, he argued that people weren’t rational.  When they made decisions, they weren’t always thinking about “utility” and survival.  I burst out laughing when I read a quotation from Veblen:

“The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogenous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact.”

Here’s a brief synposis of the book, taken from Wikipedia:

In the book, Veblen argues that economic life is driven not by notions of utility, but by social vestiges from pre-historic times. Drawing examples from his time (turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century America) and anthropology, he held that much of today’s society is a variation on early tribal life.

According to Veblen, beginning with primitive tribes, people began to adopt a division of labor along certain lines. The “higher-status” group monopolized war and hunting while farming and cooking were considered inferior work.

He argued this was due to barbarism and conquest of some tribes over others. Once conquerors took control, they relegated the more menial and labor-intensive jobs to the subjugated people, while retaining the more warlike and violent work for themselves. It did not matter that these “menial” jobs did more to support society (in Veblen’s view) than the “higher” ones. Even within tribes that were initially free of conquerors or violence, Veblen argued that certain individuals, upon watching this labor division take place in other groups, began to mimic (or, in Veblen’s term, emulate) the higher-status groups.

Veblen referred to the emerging ruling class as the “leisure class.” He argued that while this class did perform some work and contributed to the tribe’s well-being, it did so in only a minor, peripheral, and largely symbolic manner. For example, although hunting could provide the tribe with food, it was not as productive or reliable as farming or animal domestication, and compared with the latter types of work, was relatively easier to perform. Likewise, while tribes occasionally required warriors if a conflict broke out, Veblen argued that militaristic members of the leisure class retained their position—and, with it, exemption from menial work—even during the extremely long stretches of time when there was no war, even though they were perfectly capable of contributing to the tribe’s “menial” work during times of peace.

At the same time, Veblen claimed that the leisure class managed to retain its position through both direct and indirect coercion. For example, the leisure class reserved for itself the “honor” of warfare, and often prevented members of the lower classes from owning weapons or learning how to fight. At the same time, it made the rest of the tribe feel dependent on the leisure class’s continued existence due to the fear of hostilities from other tribes or, as religions began to form, the hostility of imagined deities (Veblen argued that the first priests and religious leaders were members of the leisure class).

To Veblen, society never grew out of this stage; it simply adapted into different forms and expressions. For example, he noted that during the Middle Ages, only the nobility was allowed to hunt and fight wars. Likewise, in modern times, he noted that manual laborers usually make less money than white-collar workers.

Veblen, in this book, coined the now-common concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure.

He defined conspicuous consumption as the waste of money and/or resources by people to display a higher status than others. One famous example he used was the use of silver utensils at meals, even though utensils made of cheaper material worked just as well or, in some cases, better.

He defined conspicuous leisure as the waste of time by people to give themselves higher status. As examples, he noted that to be a “gentleman,” a man must study such things as philosophy and the fine arts, which have no economic value in themselves.

Veblen derides neo-classical economists who look for these equilibriums in their complex math equations and advocates they ignore people’s stupidity in decision making.  He said these economists need to spend more time in the real world, studying people’s psychology and what they really do.  In response to the book, in 1950 Professor Harvey Leibenstein published an article entitled “Bandwagon, Snob, and Veblen Effects in the Theory of Consumer Demand.”  He says that Alfred Marshall’s rules of elasticity apply to most types of products, but we need to add a new class of goods which he deems, “Veblen goods.”  These goods are not so much purchased for utility, per se, but moreso by what others will think was paid for the product.  It’s a superiority thing.  “Look at me.  I can afford this.  Can you?”

Normal goods, the cheaper you make them, the more people will buy them.  Demand increases with lower price.  But not with Veblen goods.  Take Gucci handbags for instance.  It’s an image thing.  A social qualifier.  It’s a symbol of your social worth.  You can afford this, and that puts you in a class above others.  But once everyone can have a Gucci bag, it loses its effect.  It becomes a normal good.   These sorts of goods follow a different economic model for pricing, supply and demand.

I think things are a bit more complicated than even what Veblen says, but he has some good ideas.  But anyways, Veblen’s book seems like a fascinating read.  I definitely need it.  I’m also hoping it can shed some insight into a problem I’ve thought about for some time – in capitalistic societies, many products are made for the express purpose of breaking down, so you have to buy a replacement.  Like light bulbs for instance.  They’re made to burn out after so many hours.  Not because they have to.  They’re purposely designed to do so, because the companies need revenue in order to keep producing more light bulbs, and earn profits.  Such a strange, and obviously flawed cycle.  But what if engineers ruled the world?  They’d design the bulb that never burns out, for sure – but would this solve the inherent problem?   Here’s some interesting thoughts, quoted straight from the economic history text:

“Veblen avoids Marx’s class struggle analysis.  To Veblen, the enemies are not capitalists, and the heroes are not laborers.  He portrays a different cast of characters:  The bad guys are businessmen (whether or not they own the companies), and the good guys are engineers.  In the modern world, only the engineers accept the urge to create, improve, and produce.  Businessmen, who boss them around, strangle creativity.  Businessmen thrill at conspicuous consumption.  They produce for one reason only:  to make money.  If they could make money without making a single product, they would be happier.  Compare the dreams of engineers and businessmen.  The engineer goes to bed each night with pends in pocket and calculator on hip.  He dreams of inventing the perfect, absolute efficient motor.  The businessman goes to bed in pin-striped pajamas.  He dreams that the public suddenly finds his old product fashionable.  That way he makes millions of dollars, without investing one cent in new technology or innovative thought.  [… ]
In Engineers and the Price System, Veblen speculated that engineers might grow so disgusted with waste and wanton sabotage that they would overthrow their bosses and take charge of the factory floor and the boardroom.  After all, the administrators needed them more than they needed the administrators.  Technical specialists representing 1 percent of the population, and without one college credit of political science, might emerge the “philosopher kings” of Veblen’s republic: “… it will no longer be practicable to leave … control in the hands of businessmen working at cross purposes for private gain, or to entrust its continued administration to others than suitable trained technological experts, production engineers without a commercial interest.”
Like Marx, Veblen had little idea what the new rulers would do.  But he was sure they would not do worse.”

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10 Responses to Should Engineers Rule The World?

  1. “Veblen speculated that engineers might grow so disgusted with waste and wanton sabotage that they would overthrow their bosses and take charge of the factory floor and the boardroom.”

    I can’t see this happening. Engineers tend to be socially weak people, often unable to stand up for themselves.

    This is practically by definition because it seems the whole reason engineers get good at technicals in the first place is because on average they were born without the strong physical characteristics (intrinsic value) that would lead them to pursue other interests. So if they can’t do that, they invest more energy into what they CAN control, which is topics of the mind… and action figures, Star Trek, etc 🙂

  2. I think what you’re saying lumps all engineers into a stereotype, where they’re all fat ugly slobs, who are terrible with girls, wear big thick glasses, suck at sports, and because they could never do anything else they got thrown into engineering and technical science.

    The more I study the history of science, I find that the greats seem to come from all walks of life and cover a wide spectrum of personalities. Some were very good socially, and very popular with women, such as Richard Feynman. Some were rich men, who later devoted themselves to science. Some were introverted, locking themselves away from the world in their study, searching for secret codes and ratios in geometry, such as Issac Newton in his earlier years. There’s no real common factor. So I think you’re way off on this one.

    Plus, I think that stereotype is part of a major problem in society to begin with. Since when it is “cool” to be an idiot, and not understand science, which is the very backbone of all technology and our society? Science is cool. Much cooler than most of the mindless things which exist out there. Plus, everything we use which is of any real value, such as this computer I’m typing this on, my microwave, my television, my stereo, and everything else, was created by these engineers and scientists. They deserve more respect than those shallow stereotypes.

    So I don’t agree with anything you said, really.

    If I was to answer Veblen, I’d address the problem that the vast majority of them would lack a thorough understanding of marketing, business and other skills needed to run the company and sell the products. Just because you’re smart in one area, doesn’t make you skilled in others. They may well be able to produce the products, and make the best goods possible, but they would have no idea how to get those products “out there”, and into hands of people. I could see their ad copy being a bunch of technical jargon that people don’t care about, and nobody would be able to understand what their gizmos even do.

  3. The guys we read about in books are exceptional because we’re reading about them. If they were ordinary, we wouldn’t have ever heard about them.

    For every one Richard Feynman, there are thousands of others who fit the stereotype. Stereotypes exist because many are based on reality 🙂

    I didn’t say it was “right”

  4. yamin says:

    No, engineers should not rule the world.
    This is just another variation on Plato’s philosopher kings…

    Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    The only reason people think engineers should rule the world is because engineers have no power today… and thus appear the most honest and capable.

    Women used to say if they ruled the world, there would be no war… Until of course they get power. They behave the same as men. Just today Kelly from AIG wants to quit because of government pay limits on her bailed out company. So much for ‘better morality’.

    No ‘group’ of people is inherently better at running society, because power will corrupt them all, or the positions of power will only attract the worst of them Priests, bureaucrats, scientists, bankers, engineers, nurses, teachers… none of them.

    As a matter of fact, if you want to keep science and engineering factual and honest, make sure they reject every attempt at political power.

    Hint… the first sign of the demise of science is the scientific community’s involvement in global warming politics and increasingly in education. The money, power to make laws, influence politics will corrupt science. I’d say it already has.

  5. I agree with you yamin. A great comment. Thanks for sharing. I would only make one small qualification. I wouldn’t always say that the power itself always corrupts them, though there’s no doubt with power comes corruption. I think inside of each one of us is an inner dissatisfaction with the world and how things are being run. We can’t do anything about it so that “nasty” side of us rarely comes out for others to see. We keep our mouths shut, and go along with the flow, mainly because we don’t want to cause trouble for ourselves, and get into unnecessary conflicts. Because of this, our inner “corruption” never has a chance to manifest itself. I think it’s always been there, and lies dormant in all of us.

    I think this same principle applies when people get rich. When you don’t have money you’re forced to conform to various social systems, such as treating your annoying boss with respect, silently enduring opinions of co-workers, and things like that. But once you come into money, you’re no longer dependent on them, so you begin to speak your mind. That nastiness wasn’t caused by the money. It was there the whole time, but earning a livelihood was more important to the person than speaking their mind, so they stayed silent.

    I frequently find myself wondering what people are truly like on the inside, but then again, it’s probably better that I don’t know. I don’t think I’d like what I found.

    I think the reason for the corruption is because there’s no limit to how much men hate the world they find themselves in. People hate hard work, and toiling to survive. They hate living in dingy homes, and not being comfortable. I frequently wonder why men have evolved the way they have, considering they hate the world they find themselves in so much, to their own detriment I might add. In our own struggle to escape the natural conditions of this world, we end up destroying ourselves and others along with us.

    We wish to live in a mansion, because we hate the outdoors as we find it. We wish to build an artificial environment to live in. We hate food as we find it naturally, so we want it prepared and cooked just right, with all the spices and added flavors. We hate sickness and disease, and want access to the best medical care available to keep our bodies functioning. We even hide our nude bodies, and cover it in clothing. This hatred of this world… this continual attempt at escaping the world as we find it, is I think the real meaning behind “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Some refer to it as the uncontrollable human passions. When I look at this world, I just see evolution creating beings who are just incompatible with the world, and society in general. Life is just cruel.

    And even when we do get power to change the world, we don’t understand ourselves well enough to know what to do with it. Our social institutions are growing in complexity every day, and educating ourselves in the big picture is getting harder and harder. I’ve recently been reading history books, and economic history books. The economic books cover all the major economic thought over time. After studying it all, I see clearly that we don’t understand money, or banking, or free markets. We don’t understand the economy. It’s too complicated.

    When I see liberals and conservatives arguing various approaches, I see that in many ways they’re both right. I can see things from the angle of letting the invisible hand run things because no man can really wrap his head around the whole system in order to properly plan it all. In many ways its more efficient, because it tends to let more people contribute. It’s chaotic, but it sort of models how life has evolved on this planet. The economy becomes similar to life in a jungle. It’s a struggle to survive, but what does survive tends to be fit — at least, sometimes. But even so, nobody can deny that the massive corporations sprung up and began taking over everything, and are exploiting the workers and not sharing in the profits. The invisible hand led to a small handful running the show, and they’re not necessarily even the most fit. The comparison of free markets with natural biological evolution really isn’t a good parallel. The people at the top tend to think themselves the greatest, but that’s only because they’re too stupid to see themselves for what they are. From what I see, most are too stupid to even see the reasons behind their success. Many powerful politicians and CEOs have mindsets which aren’t much different than young beautiful teens, who get record deals when they’re 15 years old, and make millions before they’re even of legal age. They’re interviewed and talk about “chasing your dreams,” and “you can do anything you set your mind to. Just stick with it,” not realizing that all of their own success is due to being artificially being propped up. And many businessmen who are now wealthy seem to credit themselves with all their success, when really that magical opportunity which made it all happen, which opened the door to all their success, isn’t available to everyone. There’s a large degree of luck to it. It’s always annoying to hear successful people tell those who are struggling that, “It’s all your fault. You’re completely responsible for where you’ve currently found yourself in this life.”

    All in all, no system we’ve devised creates a world we find enjoyable, and allows us the freedom we desire. But what do you do? Centralize through government and plan? With more centralization more power tends to go into fewer hands, which as you said, brings corruption. There hasn’t really been a real solution to the problems. It comes to human nature, and stupidity. A self-serving, greedy nature, combined with a mind that isn’t powerful enough to even run its own life, much less everyone else’s. Only by working together can we have the strength to do anything worthwhile, but what is our common goal? How do we work together? What does that entail? Nobody can agree on that one.

    Society will have to advance in baby steps because it’s just too much for any one person to handle. Life’s really something else.

  6. Passerby says:

    Planned obsolescence is a myth. You could make a light bulb that never burns out (before the death of the sun lets say), but it will cost exponentially more than a standard light bulb. Given how often people want to change to a new technology let alone the ones broken in transport, retail and use, the efficiency of the never ending light bulb just isn’t there.

    Also, to some people, there is utility in conspicuous consumption. The problem is not with the market that meets these people’s wants, but rather with the people who want these things.

    Electrical Engineer turned Economist here, I’ve seen both sides.

  7. « where they’re all fat ugly slobs »

    99.9% of them are fat ugly slobs.

    When you’re sitting more than 12 hours per day in front of a computer, drinking coffee as a truck getting its tank filled with oil, when you laugh in front of absurd pictures of cats and other meme stuff, eating almost only garbage, trolling around about stupid topics, barking all loud your expertise on Star Wars & co., yeah, you’re HUGE, FAT and UGLY.

    Moreover, the only thing that these guys want, is to rule their computer, or even worse, they just want to get their character in some geeky game to be on the top list.

    That’s my point of view.

  8. Avetis, your comment made my day 🙂 I’ve met people like that. They’re experts in Star Trek, collect action figures, and are into weird things on the internet. It’s hard to understand, though then again, I guess I can be strange in my own way at times too.

  9. Engineer says:

    The concept of engineeris ruling the world is already materializing look around you! Your P.C., car, fridge, cell phone, etc… The are all elements to the modern day life and we are all intrenched in them.

    Imagine waking up one day and the same persons who engineered your food, home and livelyhood in charge of congress. Not so far fetched if you think about it.

  10. 0.01% of the Engineers says:

    The 99.99% of Engineers are “fat, huge, slobs” are probably just your typical American I.T engineer.

    I’m a mechanical engineer and around me are relatively healthy, not overweight, socially fine engineers who get their hands dirty as part of their jobs.

    I’d say its 70/30…. 70% being the typical nerdy, overweight, socially awkward type.

    I particularly go gym 7 days a week and apply my engineering skills and thinking through my life as well, this way I can squeeze in as much planned tasks within logical reasons as much as possible.

    In response to this topic, Engineers have a thought process that can indeed help progress society quickly. Because they (we) see things black and white, which isnt so good with dealing with other people, as we are judged to be rude and blunt, my wife also hates it. But a world ran with engineers would be a boring place, it may be organized, progressive etc, but boring. Hence you can never have 1-type of personality/vision government. And its so true that Absolute power absolutely corrupts…
    Although I’d lean on having a 50% engineering-minded government though. Thats the only way we can achieve our full potential as soon as possible. I’m biased though.

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