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Sunday, October 03, 2010

I, for one, welcome our new Chinese technocrat overlords

Hacker/activist Jeff Lindsay was musing about what a technologist political party would look like (possibly inspired by today's idiot Thomas Friedman column which is best answered by this 50-year-old Jules Feiffer cartoon).

I mentioned the American technocracy movement, with its roots in Edward Bellamy's scary utopia and Thorsten Veblen's "soviet of technicians". But that's just me being retro; most technopolitics these days is larded up with libertarian ideology, so that the idea that scientists and engineers should actually run society is not even considered, because libs believe nobody should run society.

But I also accidentally learned today that almost all the leaders of China are engineers by training. The premier, Wen Jiabao is one of them -- he has a postgraduate degree from the Beijing Institute of Geology. He was on Fareed Zakaria's show today and despite being a ranking member of the Communist Party was recommending as his favorite books Adam Smith's Theory of the Moral Sentiments and Marcus Aurelius.

So, we're doomed. Not to extinction perhaps, but to eclipse. We're run by a combination of lawyers and lunatics; how could a society run by wise engineers not surpass us? Presumably a society run by engineers will at least not neglect to invest in infrastructure like we do.

The US still has a lot on the ball in its ability to do science, engineering, and innovation. But I worry about the macro-scale level of investment necessary to continue to do such things, particularly in education. The advantage of a strong, centralized, semi-authoritarian state is that it can easily decide to make such investments. The post-WWII US had that property; all the centralizing forces of the war were redeployed into a military-industrial-academic complex that gave us the computer industry and the Internet. But that was in economic good times; now that we've squandered our wealth it is hard to maintain that kind of machine.


Anonymous said...

The link to the Thomas Friedman column is the same as the Jules Feiffer cartoon.

Anonymous said...

Singapore also has many politicians who are engineers by training.

Anonymous said...

Another fact to note was that in post WWII the tax rate for the rich was near 90%; this meant that the govt. had to money available to make the necessary investments. These days the "Gordon Gecko" types get their lobbyists to knock anything similar on the head. Ever wondered why the 50's and 60's were such a great time? Social responsibilities taken seriously. The baby boomers are the most selfish bunch going; not only did they make sure they didn't share their money around, they made sure to take their childrens' money as well. The US is in for a very very bumpy ride over the next generation or two.

Anonymous said...

The WWII period followed the worst global depression in history - and the war was expensive. It's odd to hear people talk about history and the period immediately following WWII, without addressing where the money came from to pay for all that prosperity. The war was payed for *before* we went off and fought it (and long before Europe and Japan finished paying off that debt) - by taxing the ones that controlled most of the wealth in the country (only the top 5% paid any income tax - and they paid a lot). It wasn't from a good economy that came out of nowhere - government directives and income redistribution played an enormous part, and that's a really all we need to fix today's problems as well. Let's hope it doesn't take another world war to justify that redistribution. There are plenty of long term viability and economic sustainability arguments for such.

jlredford said...

Speaking as one, I have to say that engineers have their own blind spots, most notably in terms of what they think should be done instead of what users actually want. The most obvious place this appears is in environmental issues; you get the industrial production that the technocrats want at the expense of the health of the people. I've only been to China once, but was amazed by how awful the air and food was.

China is being set up as the next big threat because the neo-cons seem to need that, but it has its own massive set of problems, from bad environment to bad education to bad governance to bad demographics. Given the US's own problems we can hardly offer any advice, but they're going to need all the luck they can get.

TGGP said...

I've heard that engineers are prominent in France, but don't take my word (or the word of someone, who specifically I can't remember) for it.

About the changing nature of technocracy, I'm reminded of Bryan Caplan & Jeffrey Friedman's complaint about Friedrich Hayek. By "libs" do you also mean to refer to modern liberals?

Two thoughts on Adam Smith in China: reportedly nobody cares about Marx anymore. But Marx cared about Smith, he was something of a classical (pre-marginal) economist even as he sought to upturn economics. Some economists like to refer to him as a "minor Ricardian". Which reminds me, why is Henry George so marginal?

David Xavier said...

Mmmh...a disturbing post that essentially expresses an admiration for facism.

fsascott said...

Anon. of 2:57 AM claims that because "in post WWII the tax rate for the rich was near 90%"; the govt. had to [sic] money available to make the necessary investments."

In fact, the top marginal rate of personal income tax was 94% in 1945, fell below 90% from 1946-50, and was 91% from 1951-63. See:

However, this does not mean that the effective rate paid by rich taxpayers was anywhere near that, nor does it mean that federal revenues as a percentage of GDP were necessarily higher than they are at today's lower marginal rates.

As a matter of fact, in 1945, federal revenues were 20.4% of GDP, and they sank to 14.4% by 1950. They rebounded by the mid-1950s and stayed between 19% and 16% for the rest of the decade. The 30-year average is 18.2%; the recent high is 20.6% in 2000 (when the top marginal rate was 39.6%) and have sunk to an estimated 14.8% this year. A chart may be found at:

It is not at all clear that marginal tax rates - and specifically, high rates on the highest incomes - have anything to do with increases in federal revenues.

The reasons for this are is that the incomes of rich taxpayers are substantially derived from capital, and do not necessarily get taxed at the highest bracket. High rates on personal income during the 'forties and 'fifties made it very attractive for owners of all but the smallest businesses to incorporate, allowing them to be taxed at lower corporate rates. Rather than dividending earnings to the owners, the corporations retained and invested them in corporate assets. These corporations thus were able to show increases in net worth that was not reflected as personally taxable income until their owners sold their stock, realizing not current income but capital gains. Furthermore, corporations were able to pass benefits through to their principals as non-taxable perquisites and expense accounts. Investable funds could also be placed in vehicles that did not yield taxable income, such as municipal bonds or whole-life insurance policies.

It is the triumph of hope over experience to believe that high marginal tax rates will yield big revenue increases for government. We have been there in the past, and they didn't. Is there any reason to suppose that repeating the experiment will bring different results?

I remember the 'fifties and early 'sixties (through which the 91% top bracket persisted) very well, and if anyone believes that "infrastructure" (e.g., roads, bridges, airports, waterways, and public buildings) was so much better then than now, he is either ignorant or are talking through his hat. All of these things were much more modest - a surprising number of them old even then, and not in the best shape. Many of my county's roads were gravel or dirt; my home town's public grammar school was of WWI vintage, and it got a new high school only because the pre-WWI structure it had burnt down in 1957.

Those 91% tax rate days were the ones in which John Kenneth Galbraith, hardly a conservative, complained of "private opulence and public squalor" ("The Affluent Society," 1958). He specifically wanted - what? - more investment in "infrastructure" such as highways and schools.

The immediate post-WWII period was not a time when the government had "money available to make the necessary investment" in infrastructure, despite high marginal rates. Much more public investment in infrastructure took place after those rates fell, and once they did, Federal revenues actually changed very little.

mtraven said...

Xavier: well, I'm hardly the first to note that Mussolini made the trains run on time. But an admiration for China's economic or engineering performance does not necessarily imply an admiration for their political system or a desire to live under it.

There are also many possibilities inbetween fascism and the pseudo-libertarian dysfunctional government we have. France, for instance, has a fairly strong central state and thus doesn't have a problem investing in infrastructure, so has very nice high-speed rail and effective nuclear power. I'm not sure what the status of engineers in France is, but the Grandes ├ęcoles (which basically defines the elite) includes a good number of excellent engineering and technical institutions.

mtraven said...

JLR: yes, I'm sure that I'd have plenty of complaints if engineers were miraculously in charge. There's certainly plenty of examples of disastrous engineering projects from both China (the Three Gorges Dam) and the USSR (the Aral Sea), not to mention our own Army Corps of Engineers fiascoes, so governments with empowered engineers are not always a great thing.

TGGP said...

In fact, Mussolini didn't make the roads run on time. His predecessors did.

Jack Schafer on the state of our roads.

fsascott said...

@ David Xavier - I shouldn't say the glowing portrayal of the "wise engineers" in charge of China "essentially expresses an admiration for fascism." They are after all communists. Even if they seem to have given up on Marxist economics, they haven't given up on Leninist command and control. Why not call them by the name they use for themselves?

As I read how the Chinese premier recommended "as his favorite books Adam Smith's Theory of the [sic] Moral Sentiments and Marcus Aurelius," I could not help but be reminded of how, when Yuri Andropov finally clawed his way to the top of the Soviet gerontocracy after a lifetime in the KGB packing dissidents off to the gulag, or silencing them with a shot to the nape of the neck in the cellars of the Lubyanka, the Western media gurgled with delight to learn that he was an aficionado of jazz! A prominent specialist in this sort of fawning over dictators is Oliver Stone, who has displayed the technique in his most recent film, "South of the Border," a paean to Hugo Chavez.

The first person to admire Mussolini for having made the trains run on time (whether or not he actually did) was Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor from 1933-45. Fascism, like Bolshevism, had many admirers amongst the New Dealers, of which this was only one example.

I suspect "progressives" have always harbored a sort of envy for authoritarian governments, because they chafe under the restraints of the Constitution. The dilemma posed by their wish for a strong central state is that its power to do all the things they regard as good can quite easily be used for evil purposes. Very few people consciously set out to do evil; they rationalize their evil actions as being in the service of good, as they see it. When the 'pseudo-libertarians' mtraven holds in such contempt try to stop them, this is "dysfuncctional." Under the circumstances, I say dysfunction deserves at least two cheers.

TGGP said...

John Robb on "cognitive slavery" reminds me a bit of mtraven on open-source/Wikipedia volunteer labor.

goatchowder said...

Actually there is a country that's been run by engineers for some time: Germany.

They've done some engineery things that have worked out very well over the last few decades, like their law requiring that ALL corporate boards be comprised of EXACTLY 1/3 management, 1/3 stockholders, and 1/3 labor. Good stuff. Plus things like a good social safety net and building products that aren't shit. That helps too.

And they've engineered their trade policy so as to EXACTLY balance exports with imports. No significant trade deficit there-- or surplus either.

Of course, the problem with engineers is that things that are messy and inherently imprecise irk them, and that's not always good, witness Merkel's recent prounouncements giving up on the idea of having a tolerant, multi-cultural society. Ack.

As for China, I do not think I would ever want to live there, bullet trains and industrial might notwithstanding.

Sauros said...

The solution to globalized problems is to form centrally managed 'competing' human hives of relatively regimented regionalized activities. A global governance structure only slightly more sophisticated than ants on the evolutionary ladder. Naturally we need technocrats to reign over a troubled and troublesome species. Anarchy means suicide. Ordo Ab Chao. Victoria Ab Tenebris.

Hal Morris said...

This is a kind of oblique observation though I think it has some relevancy.
I've observed (and I thought I wrote it somewhere) that in totalitarian countries, engineers and scientists are the least affected by the need to contort their thinking according to what's dangerous to say this week, and so their minds aren't as crippled when and if they begin to think about other things.
It was true in both Tsarist and Soviet Russia that many dissidents were engineers or scientists (in Tsarist Russia more engineers -- there was very little scientific education after all, in USSR perhaps more scientists).

fiddlemath said...

NYT permalink broken; I believe this is the Thomas Friedman article you mentioned.

mtraven said...

Thanks, fixed I think. Apparently links used to be .htm now need to be .html

Anonymous said...

You should probably look at China's current financial situation as well as its property bubble and reassess your views. Just because a person trained as an engineer in an academic setting doesn't mean they have the ability to successfully run a country. Many of the people on Wall Street majored in financial engineering at an Ivy League school, and that didn't stop the financial crisis from happening.

Engineering is good training as far as being a detail-oriented problem solver in a specific area, but China's political system seems to allow corruption, authoritarianism, and nepotism to counteract any positive changes.

Many of the most successful political actors in history had no specialized engineering training. Look at Robert Moses or Lyndon B Johnson or FDR. Education in history, political science, and law has been very useful for those in power, though I'd argue intellectual curiosity and a desire to be surrounded by experts and know how to delegate and manage has been what defines great political leaders more than what they studied in school. A good cabinet might include engineers, but having the leadership be made up on engineers doesn't seem to be necessary or to have helped China much.