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Engineering Congress

Summary: Congress needs an engineering mindset.

Turning 40 was a minor milestone; it's the beginning, more or less, of middle age, but with young kids and a busy career I had neither time nor interest in reflecting on the passing years. 50 was easy; I joked about becoming genetically irrelevant, and in that decade found myself enjoying being a spectator to the younger generation taking their place, starting families, and participating in the amazing parade of life. 60, a couple of years ago, was a shock. My wife's mother died at 62; my grandmother at 60, too many other family members and friends never made it to that marker. My 24 year old daughter amusingly laments her advanced age, but it's increasingly impossible to ignore the advance of years.

Over time one perceives patterns in life. A remarkable pattern is that of the political process, never more apparent than now. Generally, two years ahead of a presidential election, the likely candidates are far from obvious. Yet today we're faced with the almost inevitable succession of one or another dynasty to the White House. New thinking in a time of growing problems isn't going to happen. Sure, it's possible that one or another of the long-shot candidates could surprise us all.

But, after a lifetime watching politics, I doubt it.

The pattern persists in Congress, where incumbents are, it sometimes seems, elected for life. The senators in my state have been in Congress for almost 30 and 40 years respectively. 40 years! That's longer than the average life expectancy when the country was founded.

Many years ago I wrote a column about the country needing problem solvers in elected positions. Engineers. We're paid, not to debate issues, not to instill fear or hatred of the other party, but to make stuff work. If we don't, we're fired. It's a binary job. Just what you'd think the country needs. Readers mostly disagreed, pointing out that, for instance, one engineer president wasn't particularly effective. Others were cynical, figuring Congress is dysfunctional almost by design and that there was no interest in solving problems there. Controversy wins elections; the quiet person who gets things done is always unheralded and thus unelectable.

It's hard to argue with that.

But I'm pissed off. Our elected representatives are preoccupied with the battles of Washington while the country's big issues remain unaddressed. Petty partisan politics matters more than anything else.

So a year ago I told my wife I was thinking about running for Congress as an independent, since neither party seems serious about serious issues. My thinking was that the chances of getting elected would be tiny, and that as an outsider - and as an engineer problem solver rather than political infighter - the odds of getting anything useful done in Washington would be minute. But my kids' future is at stake, and I'm not optimistic that their lives will be as rich as mine. My thinking is that it's better to be ineffective than apathetic.

It's stunning to see so many candidates' web sites so devoid of hard-hitting positions. There are mostly mealy-mouthed platitudes designed to appeal to their base. That's the nature of politics, but I would want to be known for strong positions, no matter how unpopular they may be.

Go to a bar and you'll hear real people arguing about real issues. Sometimes in a detailed fashion. Probably most people reading this have a clear understanding of where they stand on the issues, and maybe you, too, argue these with friends and colleagues.

Or maybe not. Have you carefully, analytically, in an engineering fashion, thought through a consistent set of positions?

In considering a Congressional run I spent a lot of time writing a paper on where I stand on the issues. It's 20+ pages of do-this, don't-do-that, change-this-now thinking. I learned three things from this exercise.

First, it's one thing to have strong beliefs. It's fascinating - and humbling - to codify them, to boil them down in writing, in a consistent fashion.

The second thing I learned is that I would be unelectable even for dog catcher. A voter who agrees with 50 of your stands but is passionately against only one won't pull the lever with your name on it. Having written this paper, it's now clear I'd tick off pretty much everyone on one or another issue. So I'll not run for Congress but will search out some candidate whose thinking vaguely aligns with mine and support that person, no matter how quixotic or impossible his or her campaign may be.

And finally, some problems just appear intractable. It's one thing to rail against "those morons in Congress." It's quite another to come up with solutions that are practical. It's even harder to imagine how these ideas could be implemented given the reality of a system where working together for the common good seems quaint. Too many of my thoughts end with "but I have no idea how to do this."

So, what is my point? I encourage you to think through your own beliefs, to commit them to paper and scrutinize them. It's an introspective exercise that will help galvanize your thinking. Apply your left-brain engineering thinking and hold what are sometimes beliefs grounded in habit to the cold scrutiny of analysis.

After all, in the USA we'll be voting again in two years.

Published April 15, 2015