The other day, as I was reading yet another cautionary op-ed essay about campaign financing, it occurred to me that when it comes to politics, engineers are pretty virtuous folk. Then, scarcely a moment later, with a sudden pang of guilt, I thought: Yes, but if it weren’t for engineers, we wouldn’t be in such a mess in the first place.Engineers are mostly law-abiding professionals, little involved with politics, dismayed by the escalating scandal of fund-raising and elections. The major professional societies are, in IRS parlance, 501(c)(3) corporations, committed to “charitable,” “scientific,” or “education-al” purposes, and so are forbidden to engage in partisan political activities. Such societies may not give money to candidates for political office, and they are restricted in how much of their budgets they can devote to lobbying on behalf of issues. The few engineering organizations that are classified instead as “business leagues,” and thus are permitted to establish political action committees, raise less than $10 per member-well within the bounds of propriety.
ast year, for example, the National Society of Professional Engineers’s PAC raised about $80,000 from the society’s 63,000 members, and gave support to 87 “pro-engineering” candidates nationwide-politicians who favor strong government support for R&D, science education, renewing infrastructure, and cleaning up the environment. What’s good for engineering appears to be good for the nation.
But to what avail is engineering morality when we are told that the campaign-finance crisis stems from technological progress, which in turn results from engineering endeavors? In the world of election campaigns, it is television that has made all the difference. Although the medium has been crucial to the election of every president since JFK, political TV commercials have proved to be more potent than anyone guessed they would be. Money has always been a central element in politics, but television amplifies to an alarming degree the ability to translate money into votes. Historical examples abound of engineering advances producing unanticipated consequences, and here we have one that is truly distressing.