Engineers as Presidents

Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter are the two Presidents of the United States who were engineers. Herbert Hoover is best known for the Great Depression. Jimmy Carter is remembered for several things: in foreign policy there was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which he said he didn't think was the sort of thing the Soviets would do, and there was the Iranian hostage crisis. In domestic economic policy we had the second highest unemployment (after Ford)) of any administration since the Depression and the highest average inflation of any administration since Lincoln (Lincoln 17.5%, Wilson 9.4%, Carter 9.7%). In domestic non-economic matters, he is remembered (if at all) for his "malaise" speech (though he didn't use that word) and his encounter with the killer rabbit.

This raises an obvious question: what makes engineers such bad Presidents? Let's consider two tasks: an engineer designing a wing for a jet and a Congressional staffer writing a provision for the tax code. The engineer has some advantages: he doesn't have to worry that a rivet won't like its position and move to another spot. He doesn't have to worry that a rivet will anticipate where it's going to be moved and make a move first. Above all, he doesn't have to worry that one of the thousands or millions of rivets will think up something he never would have imagined and the other rivets will see what the first rivet did and follow it, causing the whole wing to collapse. Engineers are used to working with inanimate objects, not struggling against people.

In contrast to engineers, generals usually make effective presidents. Of the six career military presidents, three (George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower) are considered very effective Presidents. Two more (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor) died fairly soon after taking office and so didn't leave much of a record positive or negative. Only Ulysses S. Grant is generally considered an incompetent President. These six generals on the average have a much better record than the two engineers. Why? The reason is that generals are accustomed to getting people to do things they don't want to do: for example, to go into combat. That is the essence of government. What engineers don't recognize is that there is a constant struggle between a government and those it governs.

Posted 2005/July/10